The Fantasy of Defunding Obamacare


credit: Gage Skidmore / Foter / CC BY-SA

There's a very simple problem with the effort by a group of conservative Republican legislators to defund Obamacare: It almost certainly won't result in the defunding of Obamacare.

The GOP faction, led by Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, wants to turn the upcoming negotiations over a continuing resolution to fund the government into a last big stand against the health law. The party's message to the administration, they say, should be that the administration must agree to defund the health law, or Republicans will hold up funding for the rest of the government, potentially resulting in a government shutdown.

What they don't say is exactly how a government closure would lead to the defunding of Obamacare. Would the Obama administration and other Democrats suddenly agree to strip the president's signature achievement of all funding following a shutdown? Probably not. Instead, Democrats would blame the GOP for shutting down the government, and demand that Republicans back down from their "extremist" demands. And current polling strongly suggests that most voters would side with Democrats. A Morning Consult survey released earlier this week found that voters oppose shutting down the government in order to defund Obamacare by a two to one margin. With the public (and the media) on their side, Democrats would have no reason to cave.

A government shutdown, meanwhile, wouldn't even stop Obamacare temporarily. According to a Congressional Research Service report posted by the office of Sen. Tom Coburn, a GOP Senator who has been an outspoken opponent of the defunding strategy, health law implementation would continue during a shutdown.

Tellingly, those backing the defunding push aren't even bothering to explain how their strategy could plausibly lead. Sen. Cruz has essentially admitted that it's a losing plan. "If ordinary Washington rules apply, we can't win this fight," he told reporters yesterday, admitting that the votes to make it work don't currently exist. "The only way that we win this fight is if the American people rise up," he said. But given the recent polling, the strategy seems more likely to cause Americans to rise up against Republican defunders rather than the other way around. The defunding strategy isn't really a strategy at all. It's just a hope and a wish that political reality—of public opinion and Democratic determination to keep funding Obamacare—will suddenly disappear.  

To put it another way, there's no good reason to believe that "normal Washington rules" won't apply. But that seems to be the hope of those pushing defunding—that if they are bold enough, brash enough, loud enough, hardcore enough, they can change the way Washington works through force of will alone. In many ways it's a tough-talking GOP version of the same fantastical vision offered by Obama: not hope and change, exactly, but demand and change.

Obama, of course, didn't really change the culture of Washington, or transform the way politics worked. He and his administration did manage to achieve some big legislative victories, however, by pursuing level-headed tactics and strategies designed first and foremost to ensure that enough votes would be there when needed. In other words, he worked within the system, not against it. Republicans looking for big victories of their own would probably be more successful if they embraced a similar approach.