The Not-So-Secret Origin of the Defund-Obamacare Movement

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 4 2013 6:19 PM

The Not-So-Secret Origin of the Defund-Obamacare Movement

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Remember when, on July 11, Georgia Rep. Tom Graves introduced the Defund Obamacare Act of 2013?

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

How did the shutdown crisis begin? Let's start with the safe assumption that the demand to defund Obamacare in the continuing resolution really started the crisis. Before the end of September, House GOP leaders were planning to pass a bill that separated the CR and the defund vote; when the leadership welded the two together, the Senate Democrats went to war.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

So, how did the "defund" campaign begin? Here are some dates.

On July 11, Georgia Rep. Tom Graves introduced the helpfully named Defund Obamacare Act of 2013.

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On July 22, Utah Sen. Mike announces that he's circulating a letter putting colleagues on the record against the funding of Obamacare.

On July 23, Heritage Action made the Defund Obamacare Act a "key vote," meaning those who opposed it would watch that vote count against their yearly report cards.

On July 24, Heritage Action told Republicans to sign on to a letter from Rep. Mark Meadows, which told John Boehner that the signatories would not fund Obamacare in the CR. Reporters only really noticed this letter on July 25.

All of this happened before the summer recess, and before Heritage Action's Ted/Rafael Cruz-starring series of town hall meetings on Defunding. All of it happened before Cruz went to Iowa in August for a speech about defunding Obamacare. I was at the speech and the Q&A that followed; reporters repeatedly moved past Cruz's insistence that he was only there to build a "grassroots tsunami" to defund Obamacare, and asked him about presidential plans.

I'm reminded of all this by Molly Ball's story on the defund movement, which asks us to "give the Tea Party credit" for organizing and polling this movement. Ball dates the defund campaign to a "mid-July meeting" among Lee, Cruz, and conservative groups. There are plenty of meetings like that, and you can't scold the media too much for not seeing what would come of this particular klastch. What reporters should take from this exercise, though, is that it's often a waste of time to cover a movement from the top down.

Cruz was portrayed as the Lancelot of the defund movement, and he was happy to fill that role on TV, on the Senate floor, in TV ads paid for by the Senate Conservatives Fund. Absolutely, some House Republicans now go on the record blaming Cruz for their predicament. But that doesn't mean they're right, any more than the occasional angry moderate was right in 2011 when he said Grover Norquist (insert sound of cackle, bat wings) and his Taxpayer Protection Pledge was the reason Republicans found it impossible to agree to tax hikes.

Hey, it's useful for moderates and the press to pretend these movements run top-down, or pretend they're small. I have no clue why so many people have adopted the meme that "30 or so" Republican congressmen are holding the party hostage. Why do the party's defund/delay bills keep getting 200-plus votes? Here's why: The conservative movement, the Tea Party especially, aspires to work like a "starfish" that survives even if a leg is cut off, instead of a "spider" that dies after losing a limb. This has never been a secret, but the press sure treats it like one.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.