Republicans Are Their Own Worst Enemy

[ Posted Wednesday, January 25th, 2023 – 16:32 UTC ]

The big fight shaping up in the new Congress is going to be over the debt ceiling, the news media tells us. Republicans are on one of their traditional "there's a Democrat in the White House, so we must now slash spending to the bone" quests, and so they're going to try to use the debt ceiling as leverage to force concessions from President Joe Biden and the Democratic Senate. But the big question, after you get past all the fulminating rhetoric, remains: What concessions? What are they even fighting for? And the answer, to me, lies in the past. Remember the big push to "repeal and replace" Obamacare? That's what seems almost certain to happen this time around, too.

Republicans went absolutely ballistic when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. "Obamacare") was finally passed and signed into law. They were incensed that President Barack Obama had managed to score such a huge political victory, and they vowed to attack it mercilessly until they had succeeded in overturning every single piece of it. They ran their campaigns on the issue for years, in fact. They held vote after vote after vote -- but always just on the "repeal" portion of their slogan.

There was a good reason for this. They never did get around to coming up with the "replace" part because they couldn't agree on anything. They were stymied by a number of factors, the biggest being that Obamacare was basically a rebranded, nationwide implementation of the "Romneycare" experiment in Massachusetts. Which was not only signed into law by Republican Mitt Romney (who later ran for president) but was actually initially proposed by a very conservative organization. So the GOP was left attacking not "socialism" or "socialized medicine" (the way they would have been, if single-payer healthcare had passed) but a plan from one of their own think tanks that was designed to keep private corporations (rather than the government) at the center of the health insurance and healthcare systems.

Even so, Republicans still probably could have come up with some way of revamping Obamacare that was different enough that they could rebrand it as their own -- the Republican version that fixed all the evils they had been warning everyone about (which mostly consisted of fantasy and moonbeams, rather than facts -- remember Sarah Palin railing about the non-existent "death panels"?). But they couldn't even manage to do that much.

The hard, cold fact they kept bumping up against was that there simply was no way to achieve what Obamacare did without it actually being Obamacare. Any plans Republicans tried to float either covered fewer people (far fewer) or cost far more or led to worse outcomes. Or all three at the same time. And it's hard to convince the American public to replace something with something else that is clearly a worse idea.

That's precisely the bind that Republicans are going to face in the debt ceiling fight. And unlike with Obamacare, they don't even have any real idea what they're fighting for or against, at this point. They want to force Biden to do things he doesn't want to do -- that's about all they really agree upon. What things? Different Republicans have all kinds of ideas: cutting Medicare and Social Security, replacing income taxes with a 30 percent federal sales tax on everything you buy, slashing spending on the military, not slashing spending on the military but instead slashing spending on everything else, eliminating foreign aid entirely to "keep taxpayer money here in America," and (probably) to cut wealthy people's taxes once again. And they're just getting started. Some Republicans in Congress are just pure nihilists as well -- they're just fighting for the excitement of the fight, they don't even really have any demands (see: Kevin McCarthy's speaker vote, for reference).

Few of the things Republicans are suggesting are popular. That's a key point. Even Donald Trump has weighed in on the side of protecting Social Security and Medicare, after all (although he's likely doing this not because of some deeply-held ideological belief but rather as an attempt to score points off of Ron DeSantis, who has advocated for such cuts). Biden and the Democrats are already pointing out how devastating any of these GOP ideas would be, and they'll be leaning into this effort for the next few months. While the House Republicans try to figure out what they are actually for.

It's possible that none of these ideas will ever get a floor vote. Kevin McCarthy is smart enough to know how destructive a vote on, for instance, the 30 percent sales tax would be for his party (even Grover Norquist calls the idea of such a vote "a free gift to Democrats"). But McCarthy made lots of promises to attain the speakership, so these bills may eventually get some sort of vote.

But it is tough to see how any of these radical ideas some Republicans are now pushing ever get passed by the full House. There are plenty of GOP members from swing districts that voted for Joe Biden, and they know that they will be in serious danger of not getting re-elected if they blow up the full faith and credit of the United States just to push some monstrously unpopular and harebrained idea. So, just as happened with "repeal and replace" for Obamacare, they'll probably wind up with a whole bunch of nothing. Nothing to show for their efforts, or something that is so vague and ill-defined that it'll never work.

Democrats will have a very easy job fighting all of this. The Republicans are going to be in such chaos over deciding what ransom to ask for their debt ceiling hostage that all Democrats will have to do is sit back and point it out. Here's a good example, from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, after he met with President Biden at the White House:

Let's see what their [Republicans'] plan is on the debt ceiling. Do they want to cut Social Security? Do they want to cut Medicare? Do they want to cut veterans benefits? Do they want to cut police? Do they want to cut food for needy kids? What's your plan? We don't know if they can even put one together.

A political mastermind or a very strong leader might be able to corral all the Republican cats into supporting some sort of plan. But Kevin McCarthy is neither one of those things, to be blunt. He's going to appear hapless and weak while all the intramural fighting plays out for all to see. Meanwhile Democrats will be hammering home one simple message: "They don't even know what they want!" How can anyone take Republicans threats against the debt ceiling seriously if they can't even agree among themselves what they're trying to accomplish?

Right now Republicans are making the media rounds and talking about "getting rid of fraud, waste, and abuse" (a traditional favorite talking point), and "balancing the federal budget" and other grandiose concepts. But sooner or later they're going to have to answer the question: "OK, fine, but how are you going to do that?" What programs will get their budgets cut? What money do they consider "fraud, waste, and abuse"? What spending can be eliminated without it causing pain to the American public? And there simply are no easy answers to any of those. Or "no answers that are even remotely popular," at the very least.

McCarthy doesn't have a whole lot of votes he can lose, so he'll have the impossible task of keeping everyone in his caucus on the same page. Which means the tinfoil-hat faction as well as the moderate-district wing. This task seems almost impossible, here at the start of this political battle. What is much more likely to happen is this all ending with a whimper more than a bang, as McCarthy proves to the nation that Republicans are completely incapable of even attempting to govern. As we all saw in the Tea Party era, the big takeaway message for the American public is going to be (once again) that Republicans are their own worst enemy.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


One Comment on “Republicans Are Their Own Worst Enemy”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    If they actually hold out long enough to drive the United States into default, does anyone think they'll be able to convince the public that it was all Biden's fault for not acceding to their sensible hostage negotiations?

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