Call it a kamikaze mission, a circular firing squad, or an escalating civil war, but either way, break out the popcorn and grab a seat as the conservative movement tears itself apart over the doomed scheme to shut down the government unless Obamacare is defunded.
Time is running out to stop the law, with a key provision set to go into effect on Oct. 1, so a handful of Tea Party senators led by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have been engaging in last-ditch brinksmanship to defund it: Refuse to appropriate more money for government operations unless Obama and his fellow Democrats delay the health law. Of course Obama will never do that, but the troika of Republicans are so hell-bent on their plan anyway that they're accusing their fellow Republicans of ideological treason if they don't clamor on board the ill-fated fire ship.
And today thing are getting really ugly as outside groups move in with the artillery. The Washington Post's Aaron Blake reports that Heritage Action, the activist wing of the conservative think tank, along with Tea Party Patriots and another conservative group are starting to run online ads targeting a dozen GOP senators and 100 mostly Republican House members who either oppose or haven't signed onto the defund-or-shut down effort. The groups are also launching a bus tour to several of the states represented by the targeted senators. Heritage alone is putting up $550,000 for the effort-- a major sum for an non-election political ad campaign.
Never mind that staunch conservatives like Sen. Ron Johnson have called the gambit "next to impossible," or that Republican Sen. Richard Burr called it the "dumbest idea I've ever heard of." The Tea Party's message remains you're either with us or against us. Don't join the defunding effort? That means you support Obama's health law, they say. It's like healthcare McCarthyism, with "communism" replaced by "Obamacare."
Intra-party disputes are common, but rarely do they lead to such ugly and personal attacks on fellow partisans, let alone a half-million bucks in attack ads. Even during the nasty fight over the public option, the most heated intra-Democratic dispute of the Obama era, while progressive groups ran ads targeting Democrats, they weren't so hard-edged. They encouraged constituents to tell their representative to support the public option, and they targeted key gatekeepers, like Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus.
The Tea Party ads today, meanwhile, call the targeted senators "chickens." In the public option fight, it was a majority (or near-majority) of liberals applying pressure to a small minority of moderate Democrats who had disproportionate leverage on the outcome. On the Obamacare defunding battle, it's a minority of hardcore conservatives attacking the majority of conservatives and Republicans because they simply understand the political reality.
"Conservatives [are] doing what they do best: Destroying each other via self-defeating circular firing squad," sighs conservative writer Guy Benson at TownHall. "It's counter-productive madness for conservatives to assail each other at a moment when the other side should be profoundly vulnerable. Strategic disagreement are fine. Foolish litmus tests and ultimatums are destructive."
Even Heritage Action's deeply skewed and misleading poll, which was meant to show the public supported the defund-or-shutdown effort, found that more Americans would blame Republicans if the government shut down, and that more Americans say Obamacare should be kept in place rather than scrapped all together.
Meanwhile, in reality, the defunding effort is running out of gas. "From the leaders of the GOP establishment to usual tea-party allies, a growing number of Republicans are splitting with movement conservatives," the National Journal's Shane Goldmacher reported today. Only 13 senators have signed on (they need 41) and House leaders have splashed cold water on the plan, even hinting that it might cost the GOP its once-bulletproof majority.
Where will this leave things? The safest bet is this: With Obamacare funded, the government open, and a lot of really pissed off conservative grass-roots activists who will be told that their leaders sold them out once again. That should help get Congress working again. Maybe keep the popcorn in the cupboard after all.