The fight over reopening the government and not defaulting on our debt sounds like it’s about Obamacare. It’s not. Superficially we are in a stalemate because the president is unwilling to relent in the face of Republican demands that he destroy his signature achievement, an achievement passed into law by the normal process, upheld in the Supreme Court and validated by the electoral results of 2012. As important as health care is for millions of Americans, there is something much more precious and lasting at stake in this battle, the very future of our democracy itself. The Republican Party’s tactic of holding the government and our credit rating hostage threatens to upset the constitutional balance upon which our country has rested since its founding.
If that sounds hyperbolic, consider the situation we are in now. Republicans in 2012 lost the presidential popular vote by 3.2 million, in a year of protracted unemployment and after doing everything they could to disenfranchise democratic voters. Faced with irreversible demographic trends, including a rising minority share of the electorate and a hardening liberal tilt of Latinos and Millennials, Republicans had a choice.
One option was to try to remake the party into a national governing party once again that could win nationwide without an assist from voter disenfranchisement and gerrymandering. This option was attempted in the early days of Romney’s loss. Republicans shifted their attention to immigration reform, showed some increased willingness to make deals with the president, and the RNC conducted an “autopsy” which was pretty remarkable in its honest assessment of where the party needed to go in order to return to majority party status. Suggested autopsy reforms included backing comprehensive immigration reform, remaking the presidential primary process to favor more centrist candidates and a softer tone on social issues. I guess we can say goodbye to all that. With immigration reform all but dead, a continued Republican obsession with abortion and birth control, and no signs of meaningful outreach to minorities, Republicans seem to have found the path of reform too hard given the diet of hardline rhetoric they’d fed their base for years.
So what’s the other choice? Well we’re looking at it. If you can’t get your way playing by the rules, change the rules. If you can’t repeal Obamacare or get the draconian budget cuts you want by winning an election, hold the government and the nation’s credit rating hostage in order to get your way. Keep in mind, the folks who are really committed to this nihilistic path represent about 10% of ½ of 1 branch of government and yet by committing governmental terrorism (Peter King’s words), they’ve successfully extracted concessions in the past and are hoping to do so in this self-induced crisis as well. This is a problem that goes much deeper than just the demands of the moment, and to the very core of our constitutional balance of power. The framers intended legislating to be hard and they intended for both sides to have to win a little and lose a little to get things done. They did not intend for 10% of ½ of 1 branch of government to be able to threaten government shutdown and economic catastrophe in order to get their way in spite of the clear will of the American people. Imagine if Democrats acted the way that the Guerrilla Caucus is acting now. Imagine if they put the full faith and credit of the U.S. government on the line for gun control, single payer healthcare, raising taxes on the wealthy, fully funding head start or nutrition programs. The country would no longer function. Each party would threaten to destroy the country to get their way and the country would become ungovernable. We would have a choice between anarchy and dictatorship.
That’s why the stakes are so high in this fight. If Democrats give in to governmental terrorism this time, it will never end. Keep in mind, the debate we’re having now is over a six-week continuing resolution and a short-term debt ceiling increase. What will they demand next? Why should Republicans care about winning outside of their southern and mountain west bastions if they can get their way through these guerrilla warfare tactics?
These days the specter of Watergate is thrown around any time the slightest misstep or lack of judgment is brought to light. But what the guerrilla caucus is doing is truly Nixonian. After all, Watergate was at its core about an illegal abuse of power. After the secrets of Watergate had been revealed, however, after it was clear that Republicans too would vote for articles of impeachment, Nixon was at a crossroads. He had no constitutional options left to stay in power. However, he did have an Unconstitutional option.
There was one thing left that he could have done and that many feared he would do. He could use the army to defy impeachment and barricade himself in the White House, refusing to relinquish power. He decided instead to accept defeat, resign, and preserve our democracy.
We are now at that Watergate moment with the guerrilla caucus. They have lost in their battle to destroy Obamacare. They lost in Congress, in the Supreme Court and at the ballot box. Now they have a choice, will accept the basic constitutional methods for settling questions of law and submit to the gut wrenching, freedom destroying catastrophe of having uninsured people buy private health insurance? Or will the guerrilla caucus decide to stage a veritable coup d’etat and install themselves, 30 Tea Party members, as the dictators of America, with the nuclear weapon of debt default pointed at our heads? Right now it seems that the movement inspired by the revolutionary founding of our nation is hell bent on its destruction.