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October 22, 2013 4:33 PM Is Freaking Out a Strategy?

By Ed Kilgore

Jonathan Chait has found and probed the weakest point of the argument I’ve embraced about the Tea Folk and other Republicans being divided by “strategy and tactics.”

In the most important ways…the tea party’s strategy was not a strategy at all. On the surface, demanding an end to Obamacare in return for reopening the federal government was an insane negotiating strategy. Attempting to analyze these demands in strategic terms misses the point. It’s not a plan to achieve a defined legislative end. It’s a demonstration of dissent from a political faction that has no chance of winning through regular political channels. The problem they are attempting to solve in each case is not “how do we achieve this policy objective?” but “how can we express our outrage?”

Chait goes on to attribute the nonsensical “Defund Obamacare” crusade to panic over the GOP’s having lost the “now or never” 2012 election that they perceived as the last hope for America before the 47% grew to 51% and overwhelmed the righteous remnant of hard-working and God-fearing white people in a wave of Kenyan secular socialism, perhaps forever.

I absolutely share Jon’s belief that cultural panic is a big part of contemporary conservatism, and would add that the Tea Folk perceive Obamacare as a particular “tipping point” crucial to the larger tipping point from freedom to socialism. But does that mean the “Defund Obamacare” campaign was a cry of despair rather than an actual strategy?

Like Chait, I don’t think there was ever any chance that Obama and congressional Democrats would agree to a significant disabling of the Affordable Care Act had push truly come to shove. But this was not the perception of the “Defund Obamacare” folk, or even of some more mainstream commentators, which is precisely why I kept saying the president needed to look Republicans in the eyes and convince them he’d let Republicans drag the economy to hell before conceding that point.

To put it another way, was the effort to screw up Obamacare really “insane” when it produced a loud wail from a significant number of MSM commentators begging the president to cave—most commonly via a year’s delay in the law’s effective dates? A year’s delay, of course, would have put the Obamacare effective date beyond the 2014 midterm elections, when conservatives figured (a) the bribery effect of Obamacare’s benefits would not have its “tipping point” impact and (b) the righteous remnant, in a better turnout environment, would reverse 2012 as any sort of national referendum.

That’s all a long stretch, of course, but it’s not “insane.” And the other thing we should keep in mind, even if we accept Chait’s characterization of the “Defund Obamacare” drive as more protest than strategy, is that Tea Folk tend to share a far-from-unique belief that noise and “enthusiasm” are a tangible political asset, and that conventional strategic considerations should on occasion give way to a sort of will to power. That, too, is not “insane,” at least to the extent that an awful lot of people in politics, and not just on the Right, share a magical faith in the efficacy of “enthusiasm” to one degree or another.

What’s interesting is that Chait agrees there’s not a whole lot of difference in the general viewpoint of Republicans whether he adjudges them “insane” or not; they all fear 2012 was a “now or never” moment, yet none of them are accepting any major changes in the policies they are determined to promote now as in the recent past. If their objectives are now politically impossible to achieve, and yet they won’t bend, then I guess they are all “insane,” yet I don’t think Democrats would be well advised to put that on a bumper sticker just yet.

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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