The Republican Coup of 2013
On April 7, 2009--less than three months after Barack Obama first took the oath of office--the Daily Show's Jon Stewart perfectly summed up the red-hot, right-wing rage that hasn't cooled since. "I think," Stewart explained to frothing at the mouth Tea Party supporters, "you might be confusing tyranny with losing."
Nevertheless, just days later thousands of the GOP's furious faithful turned out for Tax Day Tea Party rallies, events funded by conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and Freedom works and promoted by Fox News, displaying signs proclaiming "Taxed Enough Already" and "No Taxation without Representation." That was more than a little ironic. After all, President Obama and the newly elected Democratic majorities in the House and Senate had just delivered tax relief for 95 percent of working households with the largest two-year tax cut in American history. And by 2010, federal tax revenue as a percentage of the U.S. economy had plummeted to the lowest level since 1950. So much for the need to water the Tree of Liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
But four-plus years later, the Republicans' scorched-earth strategy is no laughing matter. After spending most of his first term demonizing Barack Obama, conservatives are hell-bent on erasing his agenda reaffirmed by the American people less than a year ago. And as the events of the last few weeks show, many Republicans are more than willing to shutter the U.S. government and destroy the American economy to do it.
Not that Republican leaders hesitated to bring the government to a screeching halt the moment George W. Bush left the Oval Office to "replenish the ol' coffers." The unprecedented campaign of GOP obstructionism which literally began the night of Obama's inauguration quickly shattered the previous mark for filibusters, blocked President Obama's judicial nominations at record rates and even stood in the way of any appointee to head agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
During most of Obama's first four years in office, another Republican weapon of choice was, as Arizona Republican Jon Kyl's office acknowledged, the talking point "not intended to be a factual statement." Barack Obama isn't a Muslim and wasn't born in Kenya (or any place other than Hawaii). The Bush recession which began in December 2007 did not become the "Obama Bear Market "months before the Democrat even won the election, let alone take the oath of office. Tax cuts don't "pay for themselves" and the 2009 stimulus did not fail to "create a single job" and "make the economy worse." There were (and are) no "death panels. That 2009 Politifact Lie of the Year was succeeded in 2010 by another Affordable Care Act myth, "a government takeover of health care."
But it was on health care reform where the GOP waged--and is still waging--a war to stop President Obama and the Democratic Party at all costs. While Obama pondered this summer why the GOP's "number one priority, the one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care," the answer was never a mystery. The health care reform initiative had to be what South Carolina Senator turned Heritage Foundation President Jim Demint in 2009 called "his Waterloo" because the alternative was Waterloo for the Republican Party. As I summed it up in "The Real Reason for the GOP's All-Out War on Obamacare":
At its core, the Republicans' scorched-earth opposition to Obamacare has never been so much about "freedom" or "limited government" or any other right-wing ideological buzzword as it has been about political power, pure and simple. Now as for the past 20 years, Republicans have feared not that health care reform would fail the American people, but that it would succeed. Along with Social Security and Medicare, successful health care reform would provide the third and final pillar of Americans' social safety net, all brought you by the Democratic Party. To put it another way, the GOP was never really concerned about a "government takeover of health care", "rationing", "the doctor-patient relationship" or mythical "death panels," but that an American public grateful for access to health care could provide Democrats with an enduring majority for years to come.
For two decades, Weekly Standard Bill Kristol has been quite clear on that point. Kristol, who in 1993 and 1994 led the Republican effort to undermine Democrat Bill Clinton's health reform plan lest it "revive the reputation of the party... as the generous protector of middle-class interests," told Fox News' Neil Cavuto two weeks after Obama's inauguration the GOP should emulate the roadblock Republicans of the 1990's to halt his economic recovery package first and everything else - most of all health care reform - later:
"But the loss of credibility, even if they jam it through, really hurts them on the next, on the next piece of legislation. Clinton got through his tax increases in '93, it was such a labor and he had to twist so many arms to do it and he became so unpopular...
...That it made, that it made it so much easier to then defeat his health care initiative. So, it's very important for Republicans who think they're going to have to fight later on on health care, fight later on maybe on some of the bank bailout legislation, fight later on on all kinds of issues. It's very important for them, I think, not just to stay united at this time, though that's important, but to make the arguments."
In November 2009, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) laid out the stakes for Republicans in an interview with CNS. Hatch, who ironically had co-sponsored an individual mandate bill in 1993, explained in this way:
HATCH: That's their goal. Move people into government that way. Do it in increments. They've actually said it. They've said it out loud.
Q: This is a step-by-step approach --
HATCH: A step-by-step approach to socialized medicine. And if they get there, of course, you're going to have a very rough time having a two-party system in this country, because almost everybody's going to say, "All we ever were, all we ever are, all we ever hope to be depends on the Democratic Party."
Q: They'll have reduced the American people to dependency on the federal government.
HATCH: Yeah, you got that right. That's their goal. That's what keeps Democrats in power.
The usual suspects among the right-wing think tanks amplified that message. Just days after the 2008 election, Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute insisted, "Blocking Obama's health plan is key to GOP's survival." James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute similarly warned that the passage of a Democratic health care bill could "kill conservatism." He quoted a Republican strategist who fretted:
"Let me tell you something, if Democrats take the White House and pass a big-government healthcare plan, that's it."
But Democrats did take the White House in 2008. And despite conservative fear-mongering and demagoguery, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became the law of the land in March 2010. The right-wing euphoria about the GOP's overwhelming triumph in the November 2010 midterm elections soon dissipated into bitter disappointment. In 2012, President Obama was comfortably reelected and Democrats retained their Senate majority in a campaign in which health care reform was, after only the economy, the most prominent issue. (While the Democrats' gains were limited in the House, they nevertheless won its popular tally by over a million votes.) Over 40 repeal votes by the House died on arrival in the Senate.
With the Supreme Court having upheld the constitutionality of the ACA in June 2012, Republicans were left with only two approaches. First, despite the fact that health care is worst where the GOP does best, Republicans set out to undermine the implementation of Obamacare in almost every state they controlled. And to prevent the Obama administration from implementing the Affordable Care Act nationwide, they targeted the federal government itself with the same weapon they first threatened to detonate in the summer of 2011. That weapon was also nuclear.
The debt ceiling of the United States.
Raising the debt ceiling--that is, increasing Uncle Sam's borrowing authority in order to pay bills already incurred--used to be a routine part of governing for both parties. Since 1980, it has been boost 42 times, including on 17 occasions by Ronald Reagan (who tripled the national debt) and seven more by George W. Bush (who nearly doubled the debt again). Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor voted for all of those debt ceiling hikes. Of course, they had to and not just because the cost of two wars, the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare Part D prescription drug program and TARP added trillions of dollars of red ink during Bush's tenure. There was another reason debt ceiling increases had to be approved, one which Speaker Boehner (along with Rep. Paul Ryan, Senator Lindsey Graham and other GOP luminaries) acknowledged in 2011:
"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on Election Day said, 'we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs.' And you can't create jobs if you default on the federal debt."
But in the summer of 2011, House Republicans became the first party with both the votes and the intent to block a debt ceiling increase. They threatened to trigger a global economic cataclysm unless President Obama and his Democratic allies agreed to draconian spending cuts. (That's why former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill warned that his GOP allies "who are threatening not to pass the debt ceiling are our version of al Qaeda terrorists [and are] really putting our whole society at risk.") The extortion worked, resulting in the $1.2 trillion, 10-year budget sequester. Speaker Boehner, who crowed "I got 98 percent of what I wanted," wasn't the only Republican leader exulting in the wake of the August 2011 deal they extracted. A gloating Mitch McConnell promised he and his party would be back to blackmail the President again:
"I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn't think that. What we did learn is this -- it's a hostage that's worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done."
Despite triggering a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating by Standard and Poor's and reversing U.S. consumer confidence and job creation , McConnell told CNBC's Lawrence Kudlow just days later that for Republicans, hostage-taking would be the new normal.
"What we have done, Larry, also is set a new template. In the future, any president, this one or another one, when they request us to raise the debt ceiling, it will not be clean anymore. This is just the first step. This, we anticipate, will take us into 2013. Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again. Then we will go through the process again and see what we can continue to achieve in connection with these debt ceiling requests of presidents to get our financial house in order."
In 2013, the hostage would be Obamacare.
But in the weeks and months after Obama's second inauguration, that wasn't the only item on the Republican ransom note. By March 2013, Politico reported, "House GOP leadership is also eyeing several bills to hike the debt cap with different budgetary reforms [which] include increasing the Medicare eligibility age, means testing Medicare and changing the formula for calculating government benefits." By May, another approach "gained significant traction -- and has been ricocheting around K Street and Capitol Hill -- would directly wed increases in the debt ceiling to progress in tax reform." By July, the price went up again as some Republicans began demanding President Obama essentially approve the Paul Ryan budget that had garnered the votes of 95 percent of Congressional Republicans three years running.
In other words, the Republicans were seeking a de facto coup d'état by other means. The government the American people twice elected would be defenestrated, not through violence, but by blackmail.
While those and other conditions for raising the debt ceiling would appear, disappear and reappear in the months to come, by the end of the summer, the core demand was set. Led by Heritage Action and its front man Ted Cruz, Republicans would demand the defunding of Obamacare and the delay of its individual mandate as the price for shutting down the government and triggering a sovereign default by the United States. In August, 80 GOP members of Congress signed a letter calling on Speaker Boehner to do just that. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Stephen Moore detailed how the plan laid out by Michael Needham of Heritage Action became the House GOP's battle plan:
"I really believe we are in a great position right now," says Michael Needham, the 31-year-old president of Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the nation's largest conservative think tank. By "we" he means the Republican Party and the conservative movement; their "great position" refers to the potential to win the political battle over the government shutdown.
As events this week showed, Needham was wrong. The twin threats to render the United States ungovernable and sabotage the U.S. economy boomeranged against the GOP. The American people rightly blamed Republicans for their shuttered government. Senator Graham acknowledged the role the polls played in the collapse of the GOP's attempt at extortion, lamenting "Of course they had an impact." In defeat, Speaker John Boehner admitted Wednesday he didn't have the nerve to execute the American economy he and his party were holding hostage. (As Newsweek reported, both Fitch and S&P were just hours away from downgrading U.S. credit.)
Despite the failure of their coup attempt, Republicans remain unbowed. While Boehner warned that "Our drive to stop the train wreck that is the president's health care law will continue," Louisiana Rep, John Fleming promised "we're going to start this all over again." As for Paul Ryan, the GOP wunderkind turned Vice Presidential nominee who voted against the deal as well as the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission plan, "compromise" means the adoption of his budget plan ("To break the deadlock, both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country's entitlement programs and tax code") the Senate, the President and the American people already rejected.
And no doubt, Ted Cruz will be back, as will many of the other 17 GOP Senators and 144 Representatives who voted Wednesday to let the United States default. Some are already threatening to pursue impeachment. But Cruz' opposition to this week's "terrible deal" wasn't because "it does absolutely nothing to provide relief for the millions of Americans who are hurting because of Obamacare." As he recently admitted to Sean Hannity of Fox News, Ted Cruz like so many other Republicans is afraid Americans will like the Affordable Care Act:
"If we don't do it (defund Obamacare) now, in all likelihood, Obamacare will never, ever be repealed. Why is that? Because on January 1, the exchanges kick in, the subsidies kick in," and added that "their plan is to get the American people addicted to the sugar, addicted to the subsidies, and once that happens, in all likelihood, it never gets..."
"It's over," Hannity cut in, "it never gets repealed."
"You don't like a particular policy or a particular president? Then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election. Push to change it," Obama said. "But don't break it. Don't break what our predecessors spent over two centuries building. That's not being faithful to what this country's about."
Or as Jon Stewart put it to the Tea Partiers four years ago, don't confuse tyranny with losing.
(This piece first appeared at Dailykos.)