Republicans turn on each other, invite national disaster

Awkward infighting on Obamacare pits the GOP realists vs. the fantasists. The result is desperate and catastrophic

By Brian Beutler
Published August 27, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)
Justin Amash, John Boehner                            (AP/Carlos Osorio/J. Scott Applewhite)
Justin Amash, John Boehner (AP/Carlos Osorio/J. Scott Applewhite)

Anti-Obamacare dead-enders have reached the phase of their campaign to destroy the Affordable Care Act where they're inviting mockery and derision from the very people they're trying to convince.

The latest headline-grabber comes out of Ohio, where conservatives are organizing a protest outside of one of House Speaker John Boehner's congressional offices where they'll be chanting about "Boehnercare" -- a new moniker intended to serve as a wakeup call to GOP congressional leaders: If you don't adopt our self-defeating tactics, you'll be as responsible for the ACA as Obama and the Democrats.

I interpret the news as a late act of desperation from a segment of the conservative base that's running out of time and options. Though the entire movement is united behind the belief that Obamacare needs to be repealed, only part of it has accepted the obvious fact that the 2012 election put that goal nearly out of reach. The rest are holding on to a fantasy (a lucrative, publicity-rich fantasy) that Obamacare can be repealed or hobbled or at least delayed before its major benefits come into effect over the coming weeks.

And though their efforts this summer have been remarkably unsuccessful -- I don't think one GOP leader or party elder has publicly endorsed the defund-or-shutdown strategy -- you can see the effect this has had on the party over just a few short weeks.

In that sense, this August's congressional recess has been a case study in how minority parties react when faced with opponents they can't defeat. Instead of uniting in common cause against the enemy, they turn on each other. With their backs against the wall, they aim fire to either side, instead of straight ahead. And there's some new evidence that it's taking a toll on the party at a national level.

Ruy Teixeira, a liberal political scientist and senior fellow at both the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, points to evidence that Republicans are either misleading themselves about the wisdom of their Obamacare obsession or are suffering from a collective action problem -- that doing what makes political sense in each individual GOP congressional district adds up to a national disaster.

Obamacare remains unpopular, but not as unpopular as support for full repeal. If Republicans are focusing on top lines, they're missing the fact that a big reason Obamacare is underwater is that many people want to strengthen it -- not repeal it. In House GOP town halls and other conservative cocoons, the only thing more certain than death and taxes is that Obamacare must be repealed. Nationwide, this is electoral poison.

Our generic congressional trial heat shows a relatively narrow, three-point advantage for Democratic candidates (44%) over Republicans (41%) nationwide. However, when the choice in the 2014 election is presented as “a Democrat who favors fixing and improving Obamacare rather than repealing it altogether” versus “a Republican who wants to totally repeal Obamacare,” voters favor the Democratic candidate (51%) over the Republican candidate (36%) by 15 percentage points.

The parochial concerns of individual Republicans and the national party's interest in a wider appeal run in opposite directions, and it's hastening the GOP crackup like cold air on a broken windshield. The infighting has dominated national politics this August. It's everywhere, public, and at times extraordinarily awkward. The Hill traced the battle lines neatly in an article pitting powerful activists like the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action against the GOP members they're targeting.

“This is about stopping the worst law that has ever been passed, something we believe will destroy the country, and not all Republicans are willing to stop it. We need to draw a line in the sand,” Senate Conservatives Fund executive director Matt Hoskins told the Hill. “Anyone who votes to fund ObamaCare should have a primary challenge — they’re part of the problem and they should be replaced.”

Compare to Rep. Renee Elmers, R-N.C., a target of these activists, whose campaign account tweeted "Why is @Heritage_Action spending $550K to attack conservatives but not @KayHagan who was a deciding vote on #Obamacare?" on Friday.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is a staunch conservative and one of the newest members of the Senate. He won't face reelection again until 2018 and is thus politically insulated from anti-ACA pressure groups. He has a record of opposing continuing appropriations for the federal government -- he voted against the one that has kept the government operating since March -- but has been critical of the defund-or-shutdown ultimatum. And that's heresy enough to convince activists to light their money on fire.

Flake -- unlike, say, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. -- has a full six-year term ahead of him before these guys can seek real reprisals. On Monday evening, Flake proved that time is freedom and said what so many other Republicans really think of their new but well-heeled antagonists on the right.

Brian Beutler

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

MORE FROM Brian BeutlerFOLLOW brianbeutlerLIKE Brian Beutler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Affordable Care Act Heritage Foundation Jeff Flake John Boehner Obamacare Ruy Teixeira Video