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The GOP’s Obamacare Crack-Up

As Cruz's tactics clash with Boehner's, Republicans are more apt to derail themselves than delay or defund the Affordable Care Act.

Delay took over the House Republican conference this week. Not “The Hammer,” the Texan who kept GOP congressmen voting the party line from the Gingrich speakership through the Bush presidency, but the idea of putting off Obamacare implementation for another year.

This is despite the fact that Speaker John Boehner and the leadership threw their weight behind a continuing resolution that defunds Obamacare but keeps the rest of the federal government operating, with the sequestration cuts intact. Many Republicans hope that a one-year delay will result from negotiations with Democrats, after the Senate defeats the defund language.

Given the Affordable Care Act’s rocky rollout, the argument for delay is straightforward. The employer mandate has been delayed. The eligibility requirement has been delayed. Out of pocket maximum limits have been delayed. Waivers have been issued.

“The White House has always picked winners and losers in this, and that’s why they have chosen to delay or waive fully a third of this piece of legislation,” said Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price on Fox News. “We believe, however, that it needs to be delayed or waived for the entire American people—for the entire country—that’s the only fair thing to do.”

Businesses are trimming payrolls, hours, and benefits in anticipation of the health care law’s requirements. Congress and Capitol Hill staffers have already successfully petitioned for relief. Labor unions—a major Democratic constituency that, along with the pharmaceutical companies, spent liberally to get Obamacare passed—are now doing the same.

Many Americans are finding that they cannot, in fact, keep their coverage if they are happy with it. “For nearly an hour last week, the AFL-CIO’s 2013 convention in Los Angeles could have been mistaken for a Tea Party rally,” observed the Washington Examiner’s Sean Higgins, as the proceedings centered on what Obamacare would do to members’ existing health insurance.

A bill to delay the individual mandate received bipartisan support in the House earlier this year. The idea also polls well. What does not poll well, however, is a government shutdown.

Even the fiercest advocates of defunding and delaying Obamacare deny they want a government shutdown. Ted Cruz, who has come the closest to saying that the shutdown is the leverage Republicans have to force Democrats to accept defunding, claims that President Obama would be shutting the government down under that scenario. Boehner has said a shutdown is a nonstarter.

But any dispute that holds up the continuing resolution to fund the federal government could result in a shutdown, even if neither side wants it to. And there are some conservatives who appear willing to risk a shutdown, as well as some liberals who think an unpopular shutdown is what it will take to break the Republicans.

“It’s perhaps the only way to persuade monomaniacal House Republicans that there’s a difference between negotiation and extortion—that if their extreme demands touch off a visible crisis like a government shutdown, everyone will know who’s at fault,” writes Salon’s Brian Buetler. “That’d be great for Democrats for obvious reasons.”

If enough Democrats see things that way, they may not be willing to negotiate with Republicans at all. They can instead give Boehner a choice between further alienating the Tea Party or doing something that will damage Republicans ahead of the midterm elections in which the GOP was starting to enjoy an ever-so-slight upper hand.

Republican leaders would undoubtedly like to demonstrate to Republicans in both houses that Cruz and company will be unable to win enough Senate votes for their chosen course of action (Cruz himself is now virtually conceding defeat). This might make it easier for Boehner to keep his caucus together on health care.

Here’s where another delay affects the Republicans: they took so long to settle on an Obamacare strategy that there will be little time to persuade the American people, contra Democrats and the media, that they are not hell-bent on shutting down the government. An argument over delay might have had a different outcome if conducted over several weeks, with less confusion over defunding and delaying.

Georgia Rep. Tom Graves recently proposed defunding Obamacare, but made it clear that delay without a shutdown was the endgame. If this middle ground between Cruz and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s non-binding defund gambit had been adopted early enough, the GOP’s odds might have been better.

With the Sept. 30 deadline approaching so quickly, simply punting back and forth between the House and Senate somewhat heightens the risk of a shutdown.

So how far do Republicans push it? Some dead-enders almost sound as if they agree with the president: if Obamacare is fully implemented, they fear, the American people might not learn to love it—but they will find it hard to contemplate living without it.

The Manhattan Institute’s Avik Roy observes that “to believe that the extinction of conservatism is upon us unless Obamacare is repealed within the next hundred days” is to be “a true member of the ‘surrender caucus’.” Obamacare’s shortcomings will provide numerous opportunities for reform and repeal afterward.

Of course, it can also be reformed from the left as well, expanding into something approximating single payer. That’s why Roy is less encouraging when he writes that Obamacare’s survival wouldn’t mean the end of conservatism “any more than the passage of the Great Society in 1965 spelled the doom of conservatism, any more than the passage of the New Deal in the 1930s spelled the doom of conservatism, any more than the creation of the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve in 1913 spelled the doom of conservatism.”

All of those things certainly changed America’s system of government, and also limited what conservatism could accomplish. The right has certainly shifted with those innovations, and the endurance or expansion of Obamacare would similarly shrink the right’s policy orbit—and make limited government a more distant memory.

That’s why the Cruz conservatives will fight. They would just fight much more effectively if they exhibited a conservative temperament as well.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?