The conservative base wants to see a Charge of the Light Brigade against ObamaCare. Their congressmen are trying to distract them with less dangerous crazy talk.
Congress went into its summer recess with everything up in the air. None of the major appropriation bills to fund the government in fiscal 2014 (which starts October 1) are passed yet, and the House and Senate versions of them are still far apart. Even if compromises could be reached in time, the far right wants to shut down the government until President Obama agrees to delay implementing ObamaCare. Or, if they can’t block the FY 2014 appropriations, they want Congress to default on the spending it just approved by not raising the debt limit.
Other big policy decisions are also pending: The Senate overwhelmingly passed an immigration reform bill, but the House leadership has neither brought that bill to a vote nor offered an alternative. Proposals to fix the Voting Rights Act (which the Supreme Court gutted in June) are stuck in committee.
What to do?
The sticking point in all these negotiations is the Republican caucus in the House, and in particular its Tea Party faction. It represents only about a third of the Republicans, but that’s enough to prevent Speaker Boehner from passing anything without Democratic votes. And its red-meat rhetoric is popular enough with the grass roots to threaten a primary challenge against any Republican who compromises with the Democrats over its objections. So Tea Partiers feel they are in a position to call the tune for the Republican caucus, which calls the tune for the House, which in turn should call the tune for the country in spite of a Democratic Senate and President.
That minority-rule plan is symptomatic of what’s wrong with the Republican Party in general. Republicans tell each other that the majority of the country is conservative, so the more conservative the Party gets the better it represents the People. But leaders like Boehner and Mitch McConnell know that’s not true: If Republicans close Yellowstone and delay processing Grandma’s Social Security application in a quixotic attempt to repeal the law that allows Cousin-Bob-with-diabetes to get healthcare, they’re going to lose big in 2014.
[A poll done for Republican members of Congress showed that self-described "very conservative" Republicans (9% of the electorate) support a government shutdown 63%-27%, while the next most conservative 10%, the "somewhat conservative" Republicans, oppose it 62%-31%.]
So that set up the drama of the August recess: Republican congressmen would go home and meet with their constituents — typically not a representative sample, but invited groups of Republican supporters (“We’re actually talking to the choir,” Senator Coburn admitted to a meeting promoted by the Glenn-Beck-inspired Tulsa 912 Project) — who presumably would tell them to get in line behind the far right. They, on the other hand, would be trying to talk softly while slowly backing out of the padded cell — not directly confronting their base’s delusions, but also not promising to jump off any cliffs to prove their faith in the protective angels of the hidden conservative majority. (I wrote that padded-cell metaphor before seeing the following cartoon.)
For the most part, the congressmen preserved their conservative bona fides by pandering in areas that didn’t demand an immediate on-the-record vote, like doubting Obama’s birth certificate or fantasizing about impeachment.
ObamaCare. For the most part, far-right groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks succeeded in delivering rooms full of people so opposed to ObamaCare that they support a government shutdown, and most of the politicians succeeded in sticking to their I-agree-with-you-but response. (Senator Coburn, for example, kicked the can down the road from October 1, saying the debt-ceiling confrontation would be a better opportunity to defund ObamaCare. He cited the danger a government shutdown would pose to the economy, while conveniently ignoring the larger threat of casting doubt on the government’s willingness to pay its debts.)
Occasionally, though, reality seeped into even the most conservative townhall meetings. In Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, and elsewhere Republicans had to face real people (middle-aged white people that they couldn’t instantly write off) with pre-existing conditions whose only shot at health insurance goes away if ObamaCare is repealed.
The disconnect here is that the provisions of ObamaCare are popular, even in states where the name “ObamaCare” is unpopular. That’s why Jim DeMint describes this fall as “the last off-ramp for us to stop Obamacare”, because after it gets implemented people will be dealing with the real thing rather than DeMint’s death-panel horror stories.
What makes facing ObamaCare’s real beneficiaries so tough for Republicans is that after four years of attempting to repeal the law, Republicans still have offered no alternative. So their basic message to the uninsured is: Rejoice in your “freedom” and pray you don’t get sick. (Their underlying problem is that ObamaCare is the Republican alternative to HillaryCare that the Heritage Foundation promoted in the 1990s and Mitt Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts in 2006. Republicans have no healthcare plan because Obama stole their old one — which they then felt they had to denounce as “socialism”.)
Immigration. Atlantic’s Molly Ball notes the dog that hasn’t barked: Opponents of immigration reform tried to pressure Congress with big rallies, but people just didn’t show up. We’ll see if that frees House Republicans to compromise with the Senate.
So far, it doesn’t sound that way. Immigration reform has to go through the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, told a townhall meeting last Monday that the House should be “setting forward the right way to do things” … “even if it doesn’t go all the way through to be signed by this president”.
Impeachment. The weirdest thing to come out of the August recess was the talk about impeaching President Obama. None of Rep. Bentivolio of Michigan, Rep. Farenthold of Texas, or Senator Coburn of Oklahoma had the courage to tell their townhall questioners what they didn’t want to hear: that constitutionally President Obama can only be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” and so far Republicans have uncovered not a shred of evidence to support such a charge.
Bentivolio said it would be a “dream come true” to submit an impeachment bill, but his good intentions get frustrated by lawyers who ask “What evidence do you have?” and by a press that would “make a laughingstock” out of anybody who tried to impeach Obama without evidence. (The press, he adds, is “the most corrupt thing in Washington”.) But for those interfering lawyers and reporters, though, he’d be all over it even without evidence.
Coburn (in response to the meeting’s last question, beginning at about the 1:04 mark in the video) does say that impeachment “is not something you take lightly”, but dodges the question of whether impeachment is appropriate now, passing the buck to the House (where impeachment proceedings would have to start). “I don’t have the legal background to know if that rises to high crimes and misdemeanor but I think they’re getting perilously close.” (The meaning of “that” and “they” is never spelled out.)
Farenthold regrets that an earlier House didn’t look into “the whole birth certificate issue” and then passes the buck to the Senate:
if we were to impeach the President tomorrow, you could probably get the votes in the House of Representatives to do it. But it would go to the Senate and he wouldn’t be convicted. … I think there’s some potential damage to society that would be done with a failed attempt at impeachment.
At least when Democrats talked about impeaching President Bush, we had enough respect for the process to point to specific crimes. You define the crime first, then you collect evidence to prove it, and then you talk about impeachment. You don’t just say “I want to impeach this guy” and hope you can find evidence that he did something wrong.
Now what? During the August recess, the far-right base made it clear they want to see a last-ditch charge against ObamaCare, while polls show the American people in general don’t want a government shutdown. In general, I think the electorate wants to see more solutions and less drama, while the far-right base won’t be satisfied until it gets the apocalyptic battle it keeps fantasizing about. Nothing less will cause God’s hand to reach out of the clouds and give their Gideon-like band the victory.
I believe the stage is set for an epic conservative defeat. The only question is how much damage it will do to the country. We can only hope Tea Partiers keep identifying with Gideon, and not Samson pulling the Philistine temple down on himself.