A funny thing happened to the Republican Party on the way to the next election.
Conservatives have started expecting Republicans to actually do the conservative things they say they are going to do. When even the suspicion exists that a Republican politician is going to let them down, conservatives make their lives a living hell.
Consider the fact that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has to worry even a little bit about primary challenger Matt Bevin. (Though maybe not too much, if the latest Republican poll is to be believed.) McConnell may not be the second coming of Robert Taft, but there are few obvious blemishes in his voting record from a mainline conservative perspective.
The reason McConnell’s challenger has even the faintest ray of hope? Some conservatives fear the Senate Republican leader won’t pull out all the stops to get rid of Obamacare. They worry that the secret Republican plan to repeal Obamacare McConnell has touted to credulous Washington journalists will turn out like Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the Vietnam war.
Less than a decade ago, conservatives couldn’t successfully primary a Republican as liberal as Arlen Specter. Specter was out of step with the party base from A to Z, on everything from abortion to zero-based budgeting. Lincoln Chafee, a Republican senator who made Nelson Rockefeller look like Barry Goldwater, beat his conservative primary challenger two years later.
By 2010, Specter had to return to the Democratic Party. Charlie Crist followed him out the door. Republican incumbents with lifetime American Conservative Union ratings in excess of 75 percent, like Robert Bennett and Richard Lugar, were thrown out of office. Even Mitch McConnell has to look over his shoulder, hiring a guy who ran campaigns for Ron and Rand Paul to manage his own re-election bid.
Everyone from the mainstream media to the Republican establishment hates this. They think it is reckless. But there is a dirty little secret that provides some necessary context: Republicans frequently don’t keep their promises to conservatives.
Remember former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith? A great lumbering bear of a man, he was a conservative who reached this unhappy conclusion a decade before the tea party existed. He left the Republican Party to become an independent, but not before reading the party platform aloud from the Senate floor to point out how little of it the GOP Congress had actually tried to enact.
There was no effort to abolish the Departments of Energy, Education, Commerce or Housing and Urban Development, Smith observed. No attempt to defund the Legal Services Corporation or the National Endowment for the Arts.
Think of those last two budget items in the context of today’s Obamacare defunding debate. The NEA and Legal Services Corporation are two tiny expenditures. Between the two of them, they don’t cost Uncle Sam $1 billion a year. Among their direct beneficiaries are lawyers and people who soak crucifixes in jars of urine, not uninsured kids with cancer.
If you can’t defund the Legal Services Corporation or NEA, how can you hope to defund Obamacare?
“The Republican platform,” Smith thundered, “is a meaningless document put out there so that suckers like you and maybe suckers like me can go out there and read it.”
Smith wasn’t entirely untainted by his longtime GOP affiliation himself. He slunk back to the party the next time he was eligible for a committee chairmanship. But the man had a point.
Which brings our story back to 2013. Many conservatives now want congressional Republicans to defund Obamacare, which is understandable. If House Republicans pass a continuing resolution, some of these conservatives say the are going to start calling Obamacare “Boehnercare.”
Defunding Obamacare would definitely stop a health care train wreck. In fact, it would keep this little engine that can’t from even leaving the station. But there’s just one problem: unless you can get veto-proof majorities for this in both houses of Congress, you can’t defund Obamacare without President Barack Obama himself.
The only leverage Republicans have to make Obama sign a continuing resolution that strips funding from his biggest policy achievement is a government shutdown polls indicate most Americans — and perhaps most Republicans — don’t want and would blame Republicans for instigating.
This may not be fair, since Obama would technically be the one shutting down the government. But it is what the polls suggest will happen. It is what has happened every time this approach has been tried in the recent past. Conservatives, unlike liberals, are supposed to learn from the past. And Obama is likely to hold out for a while.
“The guy already lost the House so that he could get Obamacare — do you really think he’s going to cry uncle one week into a few embassy closures?” asks the conservative journalist David Freddoso. “Obama cries uncle only when tens of thousands of government employees start having their homes foreclosed because they’re not being paid.”
Moreover, this is all supposed to come courtesy of the same Republicans who won’t defund the National Endowment for the Arts because they don’t want to get an angry letter from some frustrated symphony-goer in Des Moines.
If Republicans had any credibility, they could explain to their conservative base that this strategy is unlikely to work and may prevent them from being able to roll back Obamacare in the future.
But they don’t have any credibility, because many conservatives believe — for good reason — that Washington Republicans don’t really care about getting rid of Obamacare. Or doing anything else besides getting re-elected, for that matter.
You can blame Ted Cruz if you want, but the real culprit is generations of Republican leaders from Bob Dole to John McCain and George W. Bush.
As the president’s preacher might put it, the GOP’s chickens have come home to roost. After years of playing conservatives for suckers, the party is left with few options between suicide and surrender.
I don’t feel sorry for the Republicans. But I do feel sorry for the country.
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?