Ross Douthat’s column over the weekend was about the gaps between aspirations and reality on the right. It was sort of about libertarian populism, but more about the pending Obamacare gambit from Mike Lee. “Theirs is not just the usual conservative critique of big government, though that’s obviously part of it. It’s a more thoroughgoing attack on the way Americans are ruled today, encompassing Wall Street and corporate America, the media and the national-security state. As theories go, it’s well suited to the times. The story of the last decade in American life is, indeed, a story of consolidation and self-dealing at the top. There really is a kind of “court party” in American politics, whose shared interests and assumptions — interventionist, corporatist, globalist — have stamped the last two presidencies and shaped just about every major piece of Obama-era legislation. There really is a disconnect between this elite’s priorities and those of the country as a whole. There really is a sense in which the ruling class — in Washington, especially — has grown fat at the expense of the nation it governs.”
The country doesn’t accept this critique, Douthat argues, because the policies don’t match the rhetoric, and because of the GOP’s lack of interest in governing: “The sense that Obama was at least trying to solve problems, whereas the right offered only opposition, was powerful enough to overcome disappointment with the actual results… There might be a way to turn Obamacare’s unpopularity against Democrats in 2014 — but not if Republican populists shut down the government in a futile attempt to defund it.”
Douthat’s first critique is a fair one, but it’s early yet – policy formation takes time, particularly in a Washington where there’s little point to introducing policy beyond setting down markers. And the second critique strikes me as hardly unique to libertarian populism, but I concede it has been exacerbated since the rise of the paradigm-rejecting Tea Party: an inability to understand that it’s never wise to run people out of the party for not wanting to embrace a bold, principled strategy… where it sets you up to cave. Witness the reaction of Tom Coburn, no fiscal squish he, to the latest campaign to defund Obamacare. Coburn’s reaction is a sign that defunders have pushed too far. Some Senators who signed on to Lee’s defunding letter were never going to vote for any CR – but if people get too wedded to the idea that they can block something they clearly don’t have the votes to sustain, a deal will result with McCain and Burr and a dozen other Republicans in the Senate to replace the language of a House-passed CR, and Boehner will get it through with Democratic votes to keep us from defaulting. That’s the end-game.
That said, Republicans can and should adopt a strategy where full-defunding is simply an opening gambit rather than a final demand. This is a disagreement about tactics, not aim – the vast majority of Republicans are committed to repeal, but know it’s impossible before 2017. So this is about optics, not policy. Focus the issues on spending. You can start big and go smaller – passing a continuing resolution with a Balanced Budget Amendment and Obamacare defunding to emphasize the spending side and the costs of implementation; then one with a delay of all 2014 provisions, emphasizing the lack of protections to prevent fraudulent access to taxpayer subsidies; then one with just a one year delay of the individual and employer mandates… half of which the administration is already doing anyway. The White House is delaying for employers but not individuals? Even the worst populist can make this argument, where the White House’s policy is unpopular even with Democrats.
Will this strategy result in a delay? Probably not, but that’s not the real aim: softening the ground for full repeal, emphasizing the uncertainty of the law’s implementation, and using this can-kicking CR exercise to make a clear point: that it’s the president’s hubris driving implementation of a law no one – not even its implementers in blue states – think is ready for prime time. In his own words: “And if Congress thinks that what I’ve done is inappropriate or wrong in some fashion, they’re free to make that case. But there’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority. Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency. And I don’t think that’s a secret. But ultimately, I’m not concerned about their opinions — very few of them, by the way, are lawyers, much less constitutional lawyers.” Messrs. Cruz and Lee had to enjoy that.
It’s worth remembering that tactical miscalculation has no partisan bent (see the most recent and most significant miscalculation from the White House, on sequestration). We have every indication that Obama has the utmost confidence in the permanence of his law and sees the repeal, defund, and delay efforts as merely childish screams. But in the context of the midterm elections, Obama may have underestimated the difficulties he has created for his party through his implementation efforts. Were he more willing to wheel and deal, it’s possible he could’ve kicked the can to next year, had a smoother implementation, and given himself better odds of retaining the Senate. Instead he’s pressing ahead with single-minded purpose, effectively giving up on accomplishing anything else legislatively in his second term, even as non-partisans like the HHS general counsel say in no uncertain terms that the law isn’t ready to go live.
We’ve seen what this sort of elite hubris can lead to in the recent past. Transom subscriber Brandon sends this note: “A President wins re-election narrowly, defeating an opponent with a Silver Spoon persona and little ability to connect, but watches as his signature policy move, always mired in controversy, begins to see detractors from his own party, with a new “oh sh*t” story about said move coming out daily. Scandals begin to erupt from all angles, and several notable fellows in his party begin to be mired in a few nasty ones of their own. His party holds a narrow but persistent majority in the Senate, though several key seats are beginning to show some signs of vulnerability. A loss of six seats will cost his party control, and vulnerable ones lay at all corners of the country.” Déjà vu indeed.