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July 26, 2013 12:26 PM The March of Folly

By Ed Kilgore

In his latest Bloomberg column, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru calmly explains the manifest folly of growing conservative demands that this year’s fiscal clash should make defunding of Obamacare its obsessive and inflexible goal:

The chance that Democrats would go along — would give up on their signature legislative initiative of the last decade soon after having won the presidential election and gained Senate and House seats — approaches zero percent. So if Republicans stay firm in this demand, the result will be either a government shutdown or a partial shutdown combined with a debt default.
Either would be highly unpopular, and each party would blame the other. The public, however, would almost certainly blame Republicans, for five reasons.
First, Republicans are less popular than the Democrats and thus all else equal will lose partisan finger-pointing contests. Second, the executive has natural advantages over a group of legislators in a crisis atmosphere. Third, people will be naturally inclined to assume that the more anti-government party must be responsible. Fourth, some Republicans will say that government shutdowns or defaults are just what the country needs, and those quotes will affect the image of all Republicans. And fifth, the news media will surely side with the Democrats.

Ponnuru notes additionally that Republicans would go into a full-bore kill-Obamacare-or-we’ll-blow-up-the-economy mode without any alternative health care plan. And thus:

Bringing the federal government to a standstill would confirm the Democrats’ caricatures that conservatives are reflexively hostile to all government. And Republicans would be doing it without proposing a plausible replacement for Obamacare. So Democrats would be able to say that Republicans were crippling the government and credit markets in order to take health insurance away from 30 million people.

Well, I’d argue “Democrats would be able to say that” because it would be true, but let’s just stick to the political arguments here, which are overwhelming enough without getting into the vicious immorality involved. Why, then, are at least 60 House Republicans and 12 Republican senators publicly demanding this disastrous strategy?

For some, it’s undoubtedly an intraparty message they are sending to “the base” and to right-wing primary voters that they are willing to send the country to the bottom of hell in pursuit of “conservative principles.” That’s probably why Marco Rubio, who is understandably frantic to deal with the destruction of his Tea Party steet cred by his role in immigration reform, is prominent in this effort. It may also explain why all three House members from Georgia who are competing for the U.S. Senate nomination in a more-conservative-than-thou frenzy signed on. Others may simply be maneuvering to maintain or increase their leverage on Republican congressional leaders. Still others (certainly Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Michele Bachmann) are serious “constitutional conservatives” who view the enactment of Obamacare—or for that matter, of Social Security and Medicare back in the day—as patently unconstitutional, and want the GOP to stand for the proposition that no popular majority can violate limits on government established by the Founders and/or God Almighty.

The point is a sizable group of Republican lawmakers are largely impervious to the kind of prudential arguments Ponnuru is making. Trouble is, the more noise they make, and the more it is echoed by conservative activists and opinion-leaders, the more attractive the defund-Obamacare-or-else position will become to other Republicans who want media attention, small-dollar campaign contributions, or perpetual shelter from a primary challenge.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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