Opinion Columns & Blogs

Albert R. Hunt: Republican insurgents defy rules of politics

“I am not a member of any organized political party,” the humorist Will Rogers said. “I am a Democrat.”

Even Will Rogers would be shocked at the disjointed and self-destructive congressional Republican Party of today. By forcing a government shutdown and possibly a credit default next week, a minority of rank-and-file Republican members have run roughshod over the leadership. They are pushing a futile effort to kill President Obama’s health care law, enacted in 2010, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and hotly debated in last year’s presidential campaign.

In so doing, this band of proud right-wingers has violated almost every important political precept, including:

•  Have an endgame. The Republicans forcing this crisis planned no endgame other than their hope that the president would cave to their demand to gut the Affordable Care Act. Republicans such as Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and even Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned this was a fool’s errand, to no avail.

There is a sensible endgame: Adopt a continuing resolution on the budget and extend the debt ceiling for several years (ultimately, it should be terminated). Congress then could replace the mindless across-the-board discretionary spending cuts under sequestration with a combination of cutbacks in entitlements, including some means-testing and changes to cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other programs as well as increased revenue from modest reductions in deductions for the wealthy, without raising rates.

It’s a good bet that markets and business confidence would soar after such a deal.

With White House pressure, this would command support from a majority of congressional Democrats – but not Republicans.

•  Avoid anger. Many of the core tea party conservatives despise the president and are convinced Obamacare is an assault on freedom. Their stance reflects personal animosity as much as principle.

Regardless of whether the Affordable Care Act is better than the current system, it isn’t a government takeover, as is often charged; a public option was rejected by the White House and the Democratic Senate. Now opponents say the individual mandate amounts to government coercion. That would be more convincing if the plan weren’t originally a Republican idea and the centerpiece of then-Gov. Mitt Romney’s successful health care reform in Massachusetts.

•  Playing short ball. Republican hard-liners insist the shutdown won’t hurt them politically, never mind what the polls say. This showdown arouses the party’s base, they argue, and will help candidates in next year’s congressional elections.

Perhaps, but they confuse short-term gain with long-term damage, as occurred 17 years ago. One example: In 1994, California Republicans rode a tide of anti-immigration sentiment to electoral victories but alienated Hispanics, which has cost them in elections since.

In the Capitol building’s Statuary Hall, each state gets two statues; Will Rogers is one of Oklahoma’s. The humorist’s condition for allowing this was that his statue would be on the House side so he could “keep an eye” on them.

These days, he wouldn’t want to look.