The worst game of chicken

By now you’ve heard of the heroic efforts of Ted Cruz and congressional Republicans threatening to not fund the government if their demands to completely defund or delay Obamacare aren’t met. They are also threatening not to raise the debt ceiling unless they get their demands of sweeping deregulation, tax reform, immediate acceptance of the keystone pipeline, etc.; things they are in no position to be demanding, especially with American financial stability as a bargaining chip.

Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with increasing government spending. It’s just an archaic procedure authorizing the treasury to pay bills we have already approved. Bills that fund current government policy to just keep the lights on don’t increase spending either, they just maintain it. Using these routine procedures as leverage for a legislative agenda to gouge spending is blackmail and political suicide.

If there is anything the House Republicans have bet on, it’s that people hate taxes and government, especially in their deep red districts. In the abstract, most people oppose government programs, regulation, and taxes, especially over programs like Obamacare. But ask people about the major individual components of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), about the need for public investment in education, roads, bridges, defense spending, disaster relief, early childhood programs, nutritional assistance, and overwhelmingly Americans of all stripes approve.

The scariest thing for conservatives about Obamacare is the prospect of success. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post put it this week, if the Republicans in congress really thought Obamacare was bad policy, they’d let it crash and burn in a fiery chasm of bureaucracy under the weight of incompetent government like the Affordable Care Act supposedly is, and then ride a wave of populist turnout allowing them to sweep both houses of congress and the White House to do an immediate repeal of the act.  That might be more productive than trying to repeal it 42 times with control of only one chamber, or trying to convince young people to opt out of insurance.

Counterpoints urging self-reliance cease to be critical for argument when the stakes are the raw quality and length of life in regards to health care. Obamacare is miles from the universal healthcare that nearly every other developed nation has, but it is still miles more ahead of the system in place.

All of this is just recycled debate over other programs like Social Security and Medicare, when conservative idols like Ronald Reagan warned of impending socialism if such programs were enacted. Social Security is the most successful social program in history—senior citizens, as a percentage of the population are the least likely to be in poverty. Social Security is not responsible for adding a dime to our deficit until 2025 either. Medicare and Medicaid go mostly to senior citizens, children, the poor, and the disabled, and are successful by similar parameters in poverty reduction where it’s needed most. They are also extremely popular, making them difficult for conservative ideologues to scrap. That’s what they hate.

The reality is conservatives generally accept these programs and their costs because the non-existent alternative is unacceptable. Social programs are what separates us from pre-revolutionary France, and hardly are the slippery slope towards socialism and serfdom that hardline Conservatives promise. It is the counterweight to the market, protecting the most vulnerable among us who either need to grow to be productive or treated with dignity because they already were.

The problem with them letting Obamacare go forward is that if they are wrong and it does succeed (refer to insurance rates in New York City already falling by 50% for next year) it might dampen the image that the black guy in the white house they’ve been fighting tooth and nail isn’t a leftist, socialist, Nazi, Kenyan. That might lead to the realization that the worst fears of your uncle watching Fox news turned out to be hyperbolic. And that would be bad for fundraising.

The worst thing Republicans can do to further their cause is to derail the economy in attempt to force through an agenda that was crushed in 2012. Though a government shut down over funding the government is now very likely, the Democrats will not suffer in the polls, and eventually House Republicans will have to cave to let the lights back on, looking weak and obstructionist in the process. As for the potential catastrophe over the debt ceiling, I’d expect Wall Street donors to beat party leadership into submission before things get real bad.

The best way for the House leadership to minimize Republican electoral gains in the midterms and ensure the election of a Democrat to the White House in 2016 is to go through with taking the American economy hostage in a pointless ideological crusade. When the gears of the government grind to a halt and the damage of these fake fiscal crises rears its head, The Republican leadership might finally realize the game of chicken they’ve been playing is with a brick wall.

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