The big news in conservative media land over the past couple of weeks has been a series of undercover “sting” videos released by a shady antiabortion rights activist group claiming to show that Planned Parenthood sells tissues procured from aborted fetuses. As is nearly always the case with videos such as these, they’re edited to make them look far worse than they actually are. Planned Parenthood maintains that any money it receives for procuring those tissues – which have long been used in medical research – is just reimbursement for the costs associated with the procedures. None of the videos that have been released actually show Planned Parenthood doing anything illegal, but they do show representatives of the organization speaking somewhat cavalierly about a grim topic. Many of the people promoting these videos are hoping that the emotional reaction they elicit will stoke a public and political backlash against the nation’s leading provider of reproductive health services.
Conservatives in the media and some hard-line Republicans in Congress believe they’ve come up with a plan for dealing with Planned Parenthood: shut down the government again.
“Shut down the government. Now,” demands Erick Erickson. “The budget and appropriations fights are forthcoming,” he writes. “If Barack Obama is willing to risk a government shutdown because he demands our tax dollars continue funding an organization that kills our children and sells their organs, we should have that fight.” This line of reasoning appeals to legislators like Sen. Ted Cruz – auteur of the last shutdown crisis – who is agitating for Planned Parenthood funding to be stripped as part of the upcoming appropriations battle. “I would support any and all legislative efforts to defund Planned Parenthood,” Cruz says. He has sympathetic ears among some of the more conservative members of the House.
This plan isn’t quite so appealing to the Republican leadership in Congress. Republicans went into the 2014 elections promising voters that they’d be effective stewards of power and competent agents of governance. They haven’t lived up to those promises yet (a partial shutdown was narrowly averted just two months into their reign) and picking a fight over government funding, even when it’s related to a controversial issue like abortion, promises to make them look even worse. They shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act – which was quite unpopular at the time – and they paid for it in the polls. So while the GOP leadership is certainly sympathetic to the complaints of the base over Planned Parenthood, they’re not willing to resort to extreme measures and risk serious political blowback.
This is now a familiar dynamic of the relationship between Republicans in Congress and activist conservatives. When it comes time to make new appropriations and keep the government’s lights on, hard-line conservatives in the media and elsewhere insist that Republicans go nuclear and threaten a government shutdown in pursuit of their preferred policy outcome, whether it be defunding Obamacare, defunding President Obama’s executive actions on deportations, or stripping Planned Parenthood’s federal funding. And they make these demands even though the chances winning these fights are slim to nonexistent – Democrats still retain filibuster authority in the Senate, and even if legislation were to get through, Obama would veto it.
Twice now, on Obamacare and immigration, the Republicans have either completely caved or partially caved to these demands. Both times it blew up in their faces. At this point they are painfully aware that government shutdowns don’t work as a matter of policy or politics. So if they believe they have a political advantage when it comes to Planned Parenthood, then really it makes more sense to not pursue a shutdown strategy that would strip that advantage away.
But once again the Republicans in Congress find themselves in a position in which the simple act of governing is made difficult by the extreme positions of their influential hard-right flank. The Republican leadership opposes abortions rights and does not support Planned Parenthood, but if they’re not willing to drive off the edge of the political cliff to cut funding to the group, then in the eyes of people like Erick Erickson they’re no better than pro-choice Democrats. “Friends,” he writes, “if Republicans in Congress will not stop giving tax payer dollars to the American Joseph Mengele, we should show the party violence in the polling booth.” Reactions like these scare Republicans in Congress. The question is whether they will (once again) be pressured into another shutdown fight they won’t win.