Inside the Republican Party’s Suicide Pact

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 19 2013 5:51 PM

The GOP’s Suicide Squeeze

House Republicans aren't just courting disaster. They're helping President Obama make the case that they were the problem all along.

US President Barack Obama
If the government shuts down or the economy tanks, the public won't blame this guy.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

During the periodic budget fits that have seized Washington for the last several years, President Obama and his team have made a consistent claim about negotiating with Republicans. No matter what the president tries, or whom he negotiates with, the White House can never make progress because congressional Republicans are controlled by a hard-right faction that refuses to compromise or accept anything less than total victory. According to Obama, that is what killed the famous “grand bargain” talks with House Speaker John Boehner in the summer of 2011, and it's what killed the so-called Supper Club negotiations on the budget this summer with Republican senators. Now the GOP is handing the president more evidence for his claim. Republicans, including staunch conservatives, admit that a small band of ultrapure conservatives have forced the larger congressional GOP membership into a witless act of blundering self-destruction. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

In the coming budget fight with the president, Republicans don’t just risk the political damage of a temporary government shutdown, they risk validating the president’s argument that the party is whipsawed by a reckless minority.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That's the way several Republican members of Congress and their aides characterized the political predicament they find themselves in today. President Obama has had a rough few weeks. His plans for Syria were sloppy and uncertain. He sought Congress’s support—after his aides privately told members he wouldn’t rope them into a decision—even while he told them there was no urgency and they could enjoy their Labor Day break. Then Larry Summers, his preferred nominee to lead the Federal Reserve, was undermined by Democrats and had to pull his name from consideration. The president got snippy about all the criticism, which invited a round of stories and columns about the sorry state of his presidency.

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House Republicans must feel sorry for the president—why else would they take pressure off his administration by staging their own party crackup? House Republican leaders, under threat from their most conservative members, have offered a plan to keep the government operating through December that is conditioned on defunding Obama's unpopular health care plan. The worry among a large group of Republicans is that the gambit will lead to a government shutdown, which will be a political disaster for the party, weaken their leverage in the budget fights, and upend the worthy goal of dismantling Obamacare. “People are not going to blame the president for shutting down the government," says Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. "The White House and Democrats have the upper hand here." 

Johnson is no squish. He was elected in 2010 by running against Obamacare. He even spent millions of his own dollars to do it. Johnson is also hardly an Obama administration pal. He has had public confrontations with Hillary Clinton and John Kerry when they’ve come before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's not alone in thinking the GOP is making a colossal mistake. Conservative Sens. Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Kelly Ayotte also think it is a foolhardy idea.

In the fight for the soul of the Republican Party, this battle is on a different kind of ground. It's not a fight between establishment politicians and the grass roots; it's a fight between a slice of the grass roots and everyone else in the party. It is an extension of the conservative purity contest we have seen in the Wyoming Senate challenge where upstanding conservative Mike Enzi is being challenged by Liz Cheney on the grounds that he has not been a sufficiently pugilistic toward Democrats. 

These are fights that are less about ideology than tactics—though they bleed together quickly. Conservatives pushing to defund Obamacare argue that you aren't really that exercised about the president’s plans if you're not willing to do whatever it takes to dismantle them. Not only do Republicans owe it to their constituents to keep up the fight, but this is their last chance. The insurance exchanges start signing people up on Oct. 1. After that, too many people will have signed up and the fight will be lost.

Sen. Johnson and others argue that the upper chamber will not defund Obamacare because it is controlled by Democrats. This is an unavoidable fact that should have killed the gambit from the get-go. By forcing the issue, House Republicans waste time and court a shutdown. When that happens, they will get the blame, just as the party did after the 1995 government shutdown or perhaps even more so. Congress is less popular, and people are hurting more from the economy.

What irks Obamacare opponents in the Senate who object to the House GOP’s aggressive tactics is that they feel they were winning the Obamacare fight. The public is against it as much as they have ever been and will only be more so as it is implemented. As Karl Rove argues, that dynamic changes when voters are asked whether defunding Obamacare is worth risking even a temporary shutdown—particularly for Republican-leaning independents. By moving too fast, purists risk making all Obamacare opponents look like mindless partisans willing to risk the health of the economy. The Chamber of Commerce, a stalwart GOP ally, even asked congressional Republicans to stand down.

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