To grasp just how big a belly-flop the congressional Defund-Obamacare Caucus has taken into the lake of lunacy, consider this: Karl Rove thinks they are being unrealistic.
Rove is the man who — you might recall — was arguing, late into Election Night, that Mitt Romney had the presidency in the bag. Rumor has it Rove still sneaks down into his basement now and then to re-check the numbers.
But on the folly of tea party efforts to defund Obamacare, Rove has not the slightest doubt. As he noted recently, in order to prevail the defunders first would have to convince some Democrat or Democrats in the Senate majority to join their quixotic quest. That won't happen. Supposing for argument's sake that it did, the president would simply veto the measure. Overturning the veto would require turning many more Democrats: 54 in the House and 21 in the Senate. "No sentient being," Rove says, "believes that will happen."
And yet the defunders press on — even after Sen. Ted Cruz admitted the votes weren't there, even after defunding's principal cheerleader, Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, all but admitted it is just a P.R. stunt. Last week the defunders staged something close to a palace coup when they steamrollered House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who had been trying to talk some tactical sense into them. The House leadership had proposed a plan that would have required the Senate to vote on defunding Obamacare yet still allow it to pass a spending measure. Outraged, the defunders started sharpening their pitchforks and lighting their torches. Boehner backed down.
With the federal bank account empty, this sets the stage for a government shutdown — and not just a halfhearted, kinda-sorta shutdown like the one that took place in 1995, when a number of appropriations measures already had passed. The shutdown looming now would bring just about all federal activity to a full stop. Everyone knows how the story would then play out: Public fury would rain down upon the GOP like an acid monsoon, and flayed Republicans would quickly accede to the president's demands. Just like they did the last time.
This doesn't mean Democrats have virtue and honor on their side — just the votes. As Oscar Wilde said, "It would take a heart of stone not to laugh out loud" at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's complaint that "bipartisanship is a thing of the past." Reid would not recognize bipartisanship if it wore a blinking neon sign. Democratic intransigence is central to this showdown, too. You can't have a stalemate if one side is willing to give. And as The New York Times has noted, "The health law is not negotiable for President Obama and the Democrats."
The president also insists he will not negotiate on raising the debt ceiling — another fiscal debate that will follow the appropriations fight in short order. Obama's defenders insist congressional conservatives have taken the debt ceiling hostage, and with it the country's credit rating and fragile economic recovery. They implore Obama to stand firm. But if the hostage analogy is right, then their advice is wrong — at least according to every Hollywood climax since the invention of film.
You know the scene: The hero is about to prevail when the wicked villain sticks a gun in the ear of an innocent child. "Drop your weapon," the villain snarls, "or I blow her head off!" With blazing eyes the hero slowly lowers his gun to the ground and shoves it away with his foot.
That's how the scene is supposed to play, anyhow. In this instance, though, the presumptive hero — Obama — doesn't stand down. Instead, he's willing to let conservatives shoot the innocent bystander in the head, just so he can shoot them in the foot. Not very noble.
All analogies are inexact, and this one breaks down partly because Republicans are actually asking not for something wicked but for something good: spending reductions. Last week the Congressional Budget Office reported (as if it needed further reporting) that the nation's long-term fiscal trajectory is unsustainable. Without real and deep cuts to entitlements that should have started a couple decades ago, the national debt will ruin the country.
That's the hill upon which Republicans should plant their flag. Obamacare might be execrable, but it also is untouchable so long as we have a president named Obama. Moreover, compared to the three gargantuan entitlements its outlays are almost trivial. Obamacare will cost $1.8 trillion over 10 years — no small sum. But by 2023 Medicare alone will cost $1 trillion every year. Adding Medicaid and Social Security will bring the annual tab to $3 trillion. Add interest on the debt, and by 2025 those programs will consume every last federal dollar.
On defunding Obamacare, conservative Republicans are trying to deny mathematical reality. But on the far graver question of the national debt, the whole country is.
This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.