Why House Republicans Have No Problem Taking Us to the Brink

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 30 2013 3:49 PM

The Shutdown Decade

Why House Republicans have no problem taking us to the brink.

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Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, can afford to push so hard for defunding Obamacare because his home district is solidly Republican. Thanks, gerrymandering!

Drew Angerer

On Saturday night, House Republicans declared victory in the shutdown wars—again. The Senate had given them a short-term continuing resolution that would fund the government until Nov. 15—funding everything, including the implementation of Obamacare. House Republicans responded with what several insisted was a “compromise.” The government would be funded through Dec. 15, but Obamacare would be delayed for another a year.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

What made this a “compromise,” anyway? It hadn’t been negotiated with Democrats; it had actually been pre-denounced, even by Democratic senators in conservative states.

“Sometimes I go back to basic civics,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. “We’re the House of Representatives. We’re the body that’s supposed to be closer to the people. That’s why the Founders gave a chance for the people to throw us out every two years. That’s why when you go home for five weeks and you hear from people that this law is not ready, that has an impact.”

Burrow past the blandness of that quote and you’ll learn why the House GOP is so resolute in its repeal-Obamacare drive—and so unafraid of any negative consequences. Jordan’s central Ohio district is a slice of what pundits know as Real America, suburban and well-churched. But it’s roughly 9 points more Republican than the rest of the country, with a population that’s 90 percent white and wealthier (median income $45,326) than average. Mitt Romney, who lost Ohio in 2012, won 56 percent of the vote in Jordan’s district. Jordan ran ahead of Romney, easily dispatching a union organizer who raised $34,167 to Jordan’s $1,078,119. So the people Jordan hears from are inclined to be Republicans—especially when he holds a Tea Party town hall with the Firelands Patriots of Erie County, as he did at the end of the last congressional recess.

When optimists try to predict the end of the government shutdown/debt limit wars, they suggest that Republicans will, eventually, have to buckle. Polls show that most voters blame them, not the president, for the quagmire—hey, who can argue with polls? History shows that Republicans were blamed for the winter shutdown of 1995–1996—who can argue with history?

Republicans can, and they do. The gerrymanders of 2011 added to their natural geographic advantage over urban/suburban Democrats and gave them a House they simply don’t think they can lose. In 2012 they proved it, winning 1.36 million fewer votes than Democratic candidates but keeping a 33-seat majority. According to the Cook Political Report, 205 of 435 House districts are solidly Republican, basically impossible to lose without an unexpected bribery or sexting scandal. Only 163 districts are solidly Democratic. If Democrats swept the table and won all the districts currently rated as tossups or “leaning” Republican, they’d win 213 seats, five short of a majority.

That was always the long-term Republican plan. In 2010, when voter anger was already guaranteeing a fantastic party comeback, groups like the Redistricting Majority Project (nicknamed REDMAP) told donors that “the party controlling that effort controls the drawing of the maps—shaping the political landscape for the next 10 years.”

Ah, but the plan was supposed to complement a Republican win. The actual 2012 scenario—voters voting for Democrats at every level and getting Speaker Boehner—was an undemocratic fluke. That matters, because Democrats from Barack Obama on down are refusing to negotiate with Republicans over the government shutdown. Democrats won the election; Republicans, they say (and believe), lack the consent of the governed.

The conservative response is a resounding nuh-uh. Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, who led the “defund Obamacare” distraction in the Senate, cited the 1.6 million signatures in support of their plan gathered by the Senate Conservatives Fund. Former Sen. Jim DeMint, who now runs the Heritage Foundation as think tank-cum-war room, argues that voters did not endorse Obamacare by electing Obama: “Because of Romney and Romneycare, we did not litigate the Obamacare issue.” (DeMint endorsed Romney for president in 2007, after Romneycare became law.)

Over the weekend, conservative intellectuals jumped into the breach. Both National Review and the Weekly Standard had been cool toward the “defund” effort, but both published columns defending the GOP’s ransom campaign. “Petitioning Congress to repeal a bad law through formal procedures is not the kind of behavior educated people normally associate with anarchism,” wrote Jonah Goldberg in National Review. “The Fugitive Slave Act was once the law of the land. So was the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Jay Cost, author of the Weekly Standard’s pre-election page-turner “Why Romney is Likely to Win,” attempted to debunk the Democrats with data. “The notion that Obama’s reelection in 2012 was a plebiscite on the relative merits of Obamacare is wishful thinking,” wrote Cost. “Barack Obama hardly uttered a word about Obamacare, and ditto Mitt Romney, who presumably was afraid of Obama’s rejoinder that the law was based on what Romney did as governor of Massachusetts.”

Really? Anyone who endured a few Romney or Obama stump speeches heard plenty of references to Obamacare. The day before the election, at his final campaign stop in Ohio, the president said, “I said we’d pass health care reform—we passed it,” and promised that he’d reject any legislation that might “let insurance companies discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions, or eliminate health care for millions on Medicaid who are poor or elderly or disabled.”

The president, presumably, was aware that swing voters might hear this. Most of them voted for him anyway. Those who didn’t might have been convinced by Mitt Romney, elsewhere in Ohio, saying that “the status quo path says that we’re going to have Obamacare, that we’re going to have bureaucrats telling you what kind of health care you can have,” then promising “we’re going to get government out of it and restore the freedom that you’ve always had in choosing your health care choice.”

A bored person with access to Google can find hundreds more quotes like that, but why bother? Cost and DeMint argued that the election wasn’t just about Obamacare, and it wasn’t. What’s more important, according to Cost, is that “the exit polls showed a plurality of voters opposing the president’s health care law.” True: According to the exit poll, 49 percent of voters wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and 44 percent wanted to keep it. When the pollsters dug further, 26 percent wanted the law “expanded” and 25 percent wanted it completely repealed. It’s a divisive law.

Just not as divisive as it used to be. The 2010 exit poll found that 48 percent of voters wanted Obamacare repealed, and 31 percent wanted it expanded. The electorate that re-elected Obama, less white and more liberal, was readier to keep the law.

That’s why the GOP is talking so much about 2014. When the House passed the doomed continuing resolution that defunded Obamacare, Majority Leader Eric Cantor made an extraordinary speech naming Senate Democrats from red states who’d have to take a tough vote. Those Democrats, from Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina, ended up voting to restore Obamacare funding. Republicans have responded by repeating their names again. “You go to Louisiana, you got to Alaska, you got to these states that are overly opposing it, where these senators have some very difficult races,” said Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy on Sunday. “I think they're going to have to be pressuring their leaders to say, let us have that vote.”

They’re not. “The Affordable Care has been passed by Congress, upheld by the Supreme Court,” said Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu last week, after voting to restore the funds. “We need to get working, implementing it, so that every mother, every father, every small business, every small child can have access to quality health care.”

But the point isn’t really that Landrieu or another Democrat will buckle now. The point is that 2014 gives Republicans a more favorable map, with Senate races in states that went more heavily for Romney than the rest of the country. Finally, by ejecting some Democrats in lower-turnout elections, the Senate might get “closer to the people.”