Why Ted Cruz Can’t Win a Government Shutdown
To fund Obamacare or not to fund Obamacare, that is the question. In this version of the soliloquy, Ted Cruz is Hamlet and the president’s signature health care reform law is Claudius—except Cruz will not delay.
Cruz insists that it’s “now or never” to prevent Obama from becoming a permanent feature of American life. “President Obama’s strategy is simple: on January 1, the subsidies kick in,” Cruz told The Daily Caller. “President Obama wants to get as many Americans addicted to the subsidies because he knows that in modern times, no major entitlement has ever been implemented and then unwound.”
In this telling, the failure to enforce eligibility requirements for the subsidies—a corollary of the employer mandate delay—ensures “the most people possible will get addicted to the sugar.” Even if Obamacare fails, it will simply join Medicare and Social Security on the list of costly entitlement programs the American people cannot summon the political will to reform.
Antiwar activists once asked Democratic lawmakers how they could oppose the Iraq War and still vote to fund it. Cruz is asking Republicans how they can claim to oppose Obamacare while passing continuing resolutions funding its implementation.
But is Cruz asking the right question? For those of us who believe Obamacare will ultimately fail, it is surely best to derail this train before it leaves the station. Conservatives would be justified in denying funding to this ill-conceived approach to healthcare reform.
What is supposed to distinguish the defund Obamacare strategy from the House Republicans’ 40 repeal votes, however, is that it will actually stop Obamacare. Both Obamacare repeal and a rider prohibiting Obamacare funding would stop the law’s roll out in its tracks. Neither commands the necessary Democratic support to carry the day.
Republicans obviously have no leverage to force Harry Reid’s Senate to take up, much less pass, Obamacare repeal or to get President Obama to sign it into law. Republicans can, if they so choose, block any continuing resolution that funds Obamacare.
So the question is not really whether Republicans should vote to defund Obamacare or whether it would be best to stop the law by Jan. 1. On these points, Cruz is on solid ground. The real question is whether Republicans can win a government shutdown battle over Obamacare.
Here Cruz is less persuasive. “If the American people get mobilized by the millions, Congress will listen,” he has said. “Republicans will stand their ground. And Democrats will succumb to the pressure and agree to grant American families the same waiver President Obama has already granted giant corporations and Members of Congress.”
Perhaps. But those are big “if’s.”
Winning on this issue in a hostile media environment—the swing voters who would need to be persuaded are mostly not Fox News viewers—would require a level of message discipline that Republicans have seldom mustered. Obama’s approval rating is down, but the GOP is even more unpopular. So is Congress.
Even though Obamacare is unpopular, Republicans wouldn’t be coming from a position of strength.
It’s true that the government shutdowns of 1995-96 might not have been such a public relations disaster for Republicans were it not for Newt Gingrich’s outburst against Bill Clinton after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. As the New York Daily News described it, “Newt’s tantrum: He closed down the government because Clinton made him sit at back of the plane.”
But the flap demonstrated that the Republicans were at a distinct disadvantage in the media and in facing the bully pulpit of the presidency. During the 1996 State of the Union, Clinton showcased Richard Dean, a Social Security Administration employee who survived the Oklahoma City bombing and rescued three people during the attack.
Clinton pointed out that Dean was furloughed during the first government shutdown and forced to work without pay in the second. Clinton rebuked congressional Republicans: “Never, ever shut down the government again.”
It’s also true that Republicans didn’t lose control of Congress after the government shutdown. But Clinton’s job approval ratings rose after the episode, ensuring his reelection, while Gingrich’s popularity fell.
Gingrich himself canceled fundraisers in the districts of some of the 17 House Republicans who voted against re-opening the government. The party kept its majorities but lost its reformist zeal, going from trying to abolish Cabinet agencies and reform Medicare in 1995 to creating a new entitlement program in 1997. By 1998, congressional Republicans were outspending Clinton.
When he entered the Republican presidential primaries, George W. Bush explicitly campaigned against the early Gingrich Congress’s government-cutting. He accused them on trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Once in office, he ended up presiding over across-the-board spending increases.
Cruz needs to do more than point out that it would be better not to fund Obamacare. He must make the case for why things will be different this time if another government shutdown occurs. A failed attempt to defund Obamacare would be just as pointlessly symbolic as the various House repeal and delay votes. But instead of winning Democratic votes and underscoring the enduring unpopularity of Obamacare, it might unify the Democrats and deepen the GOP’s unpopularity.
There is also a contradiction between believing Obamacare cannot work and that its implementation will prove irreversible, that millions will rise up against it this fall and then docilely accept it come Jan. 2. One need not compare Obamacare to communism to see parallels with the debate between anti-communists who believed communism would prevail if not rolled back versus those who thought it would collapse under its own weight once contained.
It is possible to be on the right side of a war and still pick losing battles.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?