The Republican effort to defund “Obamacare” is like playing chicken with a wall. The Senate Democrats will never vote against health care legislation they spent decades to pass. The voters will punish Republican legislators if they shut down the government or default on the debt. Whether the Republicans crash or swerve, this game has no positive outcome for them.
So why are they doing it?
Many analysts blame opportunism and fear. They note that Republican politicians often run more risk from right-wing primary challenges than from Democratic rivals, so they're anxious to present themselves as fearless conservative warriors. Others, like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, may be angling for national attention to advance their careers.
These explanations are correct but miss the important question. What about the people who are pressuring the politicians? Why would conservative voters want to crash their own party into a wall?
It's fashionable to portray the right as a mob of mindless pitchfork-wielding ideologues who think nothing of driving through solid objects, but this bus is not driven by a mob. Right-wing primary challenges require money, and that money comes from a relatively small group of conservative fundraising groups. The people who run these organizations are not fools. They have spent their careers plotting political strategy.
So why are conservative groups like the Club for Growth, Freedomworks, and the Heritage Foundation trying to goad the Republican Party into a suicide mission?
It's natural to assume that conservative fundraisers want Republicans to defeat Democrats, but that's not the full story. The two-party prism masks the real dynamic behind the “Defund Obamacare” campaign. The immediate target is neither the Affordable Health Care Act nor the Democrats.
Former Senator Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, told NPR that Republicans who surrendered to Obama in the health care fight “need to be replaced.” The rare admission reveals the intent. The quarry is the Republican establishment. This is an insurgency.
To understand the strategy, it's helpful to consider the first Republican insurgency a century ago. Senator Bob La Follette of Wisconsin was the Ted Cruz of his day. The press regarded him as an unhinged demagogue. Republican leaders loathed him. President Theodore Roosevelt denounced his “pointless and stupid filibuster” and criticized him for “screaming for something he knew perfectly well could not be had.”
But La Follette had a strategy. His “pointless” filibusters drew national attention to his cause. His “radical” bills had no chance of passing the Senate, but they too served a purpose. After his fellow Republicans voted them down, he would tour the country. At every stop, he would read out the names of everyone who voted against the bills—Republican or Democrat—and exhort the irate farmers and townspeople to vote them out of office.
It was effective. In 1906, La Follette was alone in the Senate. In 1908, he had a few allies. In 1910, a full-fledged insurgency split the party. By 1912, the entire Republican leadership had been decimated, and much of the country had come over to La Follette’s way of thinking, including Theodore Roosevelt. Many of his once “impossible” initiatives passed easily after that.
There is one big difference between La Follette and modern Republican insurgents. He was a big-government liberal, a founder of the progressive movement. Today's conservative rebellion is actually a mirror image of his original insurgency.
The Heritage Foundation and other right-wing fundraising groups first appeared in the 1970s, funded by beer-magnate Joseph Coors. They campaigned against liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, one of La Follette’s political heirs. By the end of the 1980s, they’d purged the liberals and set their sights on the moderates. With each decade, they raised the bar, culminating with the Tea Party movement. Now they aim to use the “Defund Obamacare” campaign to fill the Republican caucus with hardcore conservatives like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
When House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican establishment finally surrender to the inevitable by passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling, the insurgents will take down the names of everyone who voted with them. Like La Follette, they’ll go out into the country and fight to replace them with more extreme conservatives.
Liberals may be tempted to cheer this development. They’ll point to Tea Party failures like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Todd Akin in Missouri to prove that hard right candidates cannot win elections. But they would be wise to remember that pundits have been making such predictions since the 1970s. In those days, the G.O.P. was a weak and divided minority party in which ideologues like Cruz and Paul would not have stood a chance. As the party became more conservative, its popularity and power grew.
A hundred years ago, journalists and politicians similarly predicted that progressive candidates were too radical to win elections. A century of progressive government proved them wrong. History has shown that political insurgencies can change voter attitudes and transform the entire political landscape.
Today's Republican insurgents understand that. They are playing a long game to resurrect the America that existed when the progressive movement was just a figment of Bob La Follette’s imagination. In their eyes, the loss of a few insufficiently conservative incumbents is just a casualty of war, and the “Defund Obamacare” campaign is but one battle in the greater crusade.
Michael Wolraich is the author of Blowing Smoke (Da Capo, 2010) about the rise of the right of the right wing. His next book, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics (Palgrave Macmillan), will be published in Spring 2014. Sign up for the mailing list to notified about pre-sales.