GOP efforts to defund Obamacare won’t work. But can they hurt?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A CBS News poll shows that more Americans than ever want to repeal Obamacare. But could a pledge spearheaded by Sen. Mike Lee promising not to “support any continuing resolution or appropriations legislation that funds further implementation or enforcement of ObamaCare” backfire?

According to the DC Examiner’s Byron York, at the very least, such efforts “will not stop Obamacare.” “They won’t defund it. Their last chance to put an end to it was the 2012 election. They lost, and the chance is gone,” he writes.

Everyone seems to know this. York even cites a “Senate aide” who explains why they are pushing this fool’s errand: “We have to try,” the aide tells him. “Having this fight will show the people who sent us here that we are a party of principle. And after we lose this fight, all of our guys are going to have an issue that we can run on and win.”

This seems naive and potentially selfish. Naive, because the notion that Republicans could win such a PR battle in which the pros outweigh the cons seems to be premised on their ability to defy history. And selfish because it means that a handful of individual Senators (joining Lee are several prominent senators like Rubio, Cruz, Paul, et al.) get to posture as the “real conservative fighters” — at the expense of their colleagues and the overall Republican “brand” (which could be further tarnished if things go south).

Maybe there’s a method to the madness? Sometimes you have to drive a hard bargain in order to exact other concessions. This works as long as you veer before driving off the cliff. I don’t think that’s what this is (though it could have the same result.) Still, that is a coherent strategy, and ultimately, that’s what this fight is about. This is a fight over strategy.

Almost all Republicans want to repeal Obamacare, so this isn’t about policy or philosophy. It’s about toughness. The question is whether or not the Republican habit of reflexively pursuing hard power (instead of smart power) is the best way to go about repealing the law.

Some people think it is. Over at the Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes admits that “Efforts to defund Obamacare are unlikely to succeed—at least for now.” But he also believes that Lee’s “efforts may succeed in pushing Republican leaders to come up with an actual strategy to stall Obamacare.”

But what if it goes too far? What if the best of intentions has unintended consequences?

Lee’s home state paper, the Salt Lake Tribune, writes: “The showdown could result in the first government closure since 1996, though Lee’s office considers that unlikely and, if it happens, the senator would attempt to blame Democrats for failing to abandon Obamacare.”

“I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr said on Thursday. “Listen, as long as Barack Obama is president the Affordable Care Act is gonna be law.”

“I think some of these guys need to understand that you shut down the federal government, you better have a specific reason to do it that’s achievable,” he continued. “Defunding the Affordable Care Act is not achievable through shutting down the federal government.”

Regarding the coming fiscal showdowns (not solely the Obamacare fight) Rep. Tom Cole (a Boehner ally) warns, “The only two things that really risk the Republican majority in 2014 would be if we shut down the government or if we defaulted on the debt.”

Cole may not be a conservative hero, but he’s a smart pol. And he’s not alone in voicing concern about the phenomenon Greg Sargent refers to as “sabotage governing.”

(No word yet as to whether or not Byron York will be considered a “surrender monkey” for his report.)

Matt K. Lewis