Republicans are deluding themselves about their power

Are folks like Erick Erickson knowingly misleading the GOP base about Obamacare, or just completely clueless?

Published August 16, 2013 3:21PM (EDT)

These days I tend to chalk up threats of procedural extremism (debt limit hostage-taking, etc) to GOP officials misleading voters about what they're willing to do, and what they can conceivably accomplish.

But sometimes it seems the problem is that GOP officials are deluding themselves about what Democrats will and will not negotiate over when it comes time to fund the government, or raise the debt limit.

Today's example: Red State's Erick Erickson -- who's well sourced in the Republican party, particularly among conservative Republicans -- has published a column suggesting Republicans believe Democrats will in fact negotiate substantive provisions of the Affordable Care Act next month, ahead of the deadline to fund the government.

"Republicans are going to vote to fund Obamacare," he writes ruefully. "But they have a plan to make you clap like a seal by dangling a shiny object in front of you. They are going to get the individual mandate delayed — not defunded, not permanently killed, but delayed a year."

To conservatives -- and to Erickson specifically -- this would be a wholly unsatisfactory compromise. That underscores just how nutty their demands are. But the bigger problem for them is that this imagined "compromise" isn't even in the realm of things Democrats would be willing to negotiate, and they don't seem to have grasped that.

Erickson's not exactly plugged in to Democratic politics, so he can be forgiven for totally missing the writing on the wall. But he's no dummy, and I find it much more likely that whomever he's talking to is actually mistaken -- badly -- about the balance of leverage on Capitol Hill, than engaging in willful deception. Even in the dour days of 2011, when Dems were defeated, morose, and willing to negotiate away almost anything, major provisions of Obamacare were off the table. In 2013, almost everything is off the table. They're done getting mugged by the GOP. Funding the government and increasing the debt limit are fundamental responsibilities of Congress, and Republicans won't get more than a couple fig leafs for marshalling enough votes to accomplish them.

John Harwood, by contrast, reports on some genuinely plausible outcomes for the appropriations and debt limit fights. The concessions, you'll see, are mutual, and not even in the same universe as the negotiables in conservative fantasies.

I can imagine Democrats putting something genuinely marginal to the ACA on the table. Like I said, a fig leaf. But not the individual mandate. Getting many people into the insurance exchanges, and particularly young healthy people, is crucial to the law's success, and the mandate is the only stick they have (and it's a pretty flimsy one) to prod them in there. Everything else is carrots. It's conceivable to me that the inducements, and the national enrollment outreach effort, will be successful enough on their own to render the mandate ancillary in 2014. But postponing it is too big of a risk.

Republicans should know this. I think GOP leaders do know it, and for the sake of stability and a calming autumn, I sure hope they do. If they don't, they'll blunder into these discussions completely blind to how empty they're about to come up. They'll feel like they got rolled, when in reality they'll have simply been mistaken about the terms of the negotiation. And that's the only way I can imagine these crazed theatrics transforming into a genuine crisis.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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Affordable Care Act Debt Ceiling Ericks Government Shutdown Health Care Health Care Reform Obamacare