Hunter Johnson, Commentary Editor
Nearly two weeks ago, one of the most unusual and polarizing events in recent national politics was finally brought to an end. The U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama passed a bill ending the partial shutdown of the federal government just as America was on the cusp of defaulting on its debt. Now that it’s all said and done, there’s one question Republicans everywhere are asking themselves: Was it worth it?
I say Republicans specifically because they bear most of the blame for the entire fiasco. Republicans, particularly those in the House of Representatives, as well as a few senators, were pushing hard to strip the president’s crowning achievement, the health care law affectionately referred to as “Obamacare,” of funding in the federal budget. While the House passed several government funding proposals doing just that, the Democrat-controlled Senate shot each of them down. The GOP-ruled House refused to back down, and on Oct. 1, without any budget in place to fund the government, the shutdown of 2013 began.
To be clear, Democrats definitely contributed to the standoff with their refusal to negotiate on any aspects of Obamacare. Both President Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid were willing to let the country come to the brink of a debt default, something that would worsen America’s already damaged credit image, because they knew Republicans would be blamed for the incident.
The thing is, many Republicans knew they would be blamed, yet they pushed on with the shutdown regardless. A lot of them say that it was worth the fight.
A vast number of Americans strongly disapprove of Obamacare and want to see it, or at least many aspects of the law, taken down. Despite its stated purpose being to make health care more affordable for all Americans, many studies have shown that the law does little to accomplish this goal. As Robert Samuelson said recently in The Wall Street Journal, the law essentially just shifts the costs to other people through higher taxes and cutting other programs.
Believing this budget battle to be the prime time to fight Obamacare, congressional Republicans drew their line in the sand. They argued that the potential for a shutdown would show Democrats how serious they were about this issue and give the Republicans the leverage necessary to strike down, or at least delay, some of the more unpopular aspects of the law. Even now, many of these same Republicans say the shutdown strengthened their party’s conservative image by showing how hard they would fight for Americans.
The main problem with that idea, however, is that the GOP’s public image is now more shot up than Bonnie and Clyde’s getaway car. With the exception of those of the far right, almost everyone could see that that the guts-and-glory strategy of the House GOP and Tea Party-affiliated senators simply could not succeed. Senate Democrats would never pass a budget bill stripping Obamacare of funding, and even if they did, the odds of the law’s nickname-sake signing off on it were even lower. The Democrats had the upper hand this round and called the GOP’s bluff.
But congressional GOP pushed on regardless. While I personally side with them on the Obamacare issue, this was not a sound strategy. For one, Republican-led government shutdowns in the 1990s backfired enormously. Congressional Republicans who were in office back then remembered how those shutdowns resulted in lower approval ratings and electoral losses for the GOP, and this time they were very hesitant to try that strategy again. However, their newer colleagues did not look to history as a guide and repeated the mistakes of the past.
When it was over, what did the Republicans have to show for it? To put it bluntly, nothing. The short-term budget that was passed on Oct. 17 left Obamacare intact and Republicans with little to no ground gained in the fight. All the speeches, demonstrations and gusto coming from the Republican congressmen leading the effort ended with Democrats still getting what they wanted, not to mention Obama scoring a desperately needed political victory by holding his ground.
Sure, the Tea Party-backed Republicans still have soaring support from their base, but the base is hardly a majority of Americans. Almost everyone else saw a party, driven by ideology to an unhealthy degree, pushing the country toward a cliff simply to make a point.
That does not work out well for a party trying to take control of Congress in 2014 and the White House in 2016, especially when those are the only ways to achieve real success against Obamacare. Republicans used precious political capital pursuing a strategy that brought the country to the brink of another financial crisis. Instead of rallying more people to the conservative cause against Obamacare, their actions showed a party that still can’t quite get its act together.