“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” So said Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s first Republican president. John Boehner would probably nod in agreement. But Lincoln’s party is today a house divided.
One dividing line is an issue that should unite Republicans: Obamacare.
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a staunch fiscal conservative, calls the campaign to defund Obamacare “dishonest” and “hype.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the upstart conservative leading that campaign, may or may not have labeled Republicans like Coburn “the surrender caucus.” But he did knock House Republicans for “empty, symbolic votes” on Obamacare.
Not since Ronald Reagan debated Bill Buckley on the Panama Canal Treaty have conservative leaders been so divided. But what happens with Obamacare is much more crucial to the fate of limited government and determining what kind of country we are going to be.
How to bridge this divide?
First, on this much Coburn and Cruz agree: a government shutdown itself will not strip funding from the Affordable Care Act. Much of that funding is mandatory spending that would survive untouched.
The Congressional Research Service concurs: “It appears that substantial ACA implementation might continue during a lapse in annual appropriations that resulted in a temporary government shutdown.”
What Cruz believes a government shutdown can do is force Barack Obama and Harry Reid to accept a continuing resolution that explicitly prohibits Obamacare funding.
The reason this gambit is worth trying, Cruz argues, is that once the benefits of the health care law kick in, the Obamacare train has left the station: “[I]n modern times there has never been any major entitlement that has gone into effect and has been unwound.”
Cruz wants to strangle this Obamacare snake in its crib before its venom flows through Americans’ veins. Or at least before it joins a pantheon of broke federal entitlement programs that Americans cannot afford but also cannot summon the political will to reform.
But Cruz is wrong to demean the Obamacare efforts of his fellow Republicans as entirely hollow or meaningless. Every vote to repeal Obamacare as a whole or in part prevents the law from becoming a settled issue and keeps the hope of repeal alive.
A House Republican bill to write the Obama administration’s delay of the employer mandate into law won 35 Democratic votes. Another delaying the individual mandate received the backing of 22 Democrats.
Congress has already repealed Obamacare’s onerous 1099 reporting requirements with bipartisan support. President Obama signed the repeal bill into law. A majority of the Democratic-controlled Senate supports repeal of the medical devices tax.
Even votes to block the IRS’ enforcement of Obamacare and repeal the bill entirely received more bipartisan support than the enactment of Obamacare. As many as 54 Democrats in the House voted against earlier versions of the legislation, and 34 voted against the Affordable Care Act’s final passage.
In the end, no Republicans voted for Obamacare.
Every one of these votes keeps Obamacare a contested issue, a program with the support of only one party persistently opposed by members of both parties — and a majority of Americans.
If Republicans held firm on Obamacare funding and Obama did not, it would be the biggest blow to the law yet. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling and the president’s reelection, Obamacare’s future would be very much in doubt.
But that is what makes Obamacare defunding a matter of prudential judgment, not an authoritative part of the conservative canon. To be a hill worth dying on, Cruz must be right that Obama can be induced to fold, that the right can communicate through a hostile media that the president is shutting down the government to save an unpopular program, that enough Republicans will support this strategy to give it any realistic chance of success.
For if Obamacare defunding cannot succeed, it will be as “symbolic” as the House votes at which Cruz turns up his nose. Except instead of symbolizing the broad, bipartisan opposition to Obamacare, it may be costly symbolism that turns the country’s attention from Obamacare’s enduring unpopularity to the Republicans’.
If Republicans use a government shutdown to strike at the king of Obama’s legislative achievements, they must kill it.
For many years, the biggest divide in the Republican Party has been between leaders with political savvy but no real interest in advancing conservative principles and deeply principled conservatives so politically inept they could not sell a life preserver to a drowning man.
The GOP has been the party of Charlie Crist and Christine O’Donnell.
That disconnect between principle and practical effectiveness is one Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul have been asked to solve. To be doers and talkers, fundraisers and functioning advocates for limited government.
Conservatives must promote liberty and practice prudence. They must take political risks in fighting big government, but not lose confidence in their conviction that programs like Obamacare cannot work. There is one previous entitlement, the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988, that failed so badly it was repealed — by a Democratic Congress.
What Cruz is asking of the GOP is similar to what, according to Capitol Hill lore, a fellow Texan asked of conservative Democrats during the debate over the Reagan economic program: remember the Alamo.
If William Barrett Travis had asked for a debate at the Alamo instead of drawing a line in the sand, Phil Gramm said, “there would never have been a battle.” Another Democrat in the room pointed out that everyone who crossed that line died.
Yes, Gramm conceded, but “the ones who didn’t cross the line died, too. Only no one remembers their names.”
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?“ Follow him on Twitter.