U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, told a reporter last month that threatening to shut down the federal government unless Congress agrees to defund Obamacare was "the dumbest idea I've ever heard." He was absolutely right. It wasn't a sign of support for President Barack Obama's health care law but simply a recognition of reality.
Yet, for his trouble, Senator Burr has been targeted by a right-wing advocacy group, the Senate Conservatives Fund, that has been running ads in North Carolina calling on voters to "send Richard Burr a message." The desire to stop Obamacare at all costs has grown so great that arch-conservatives are willing to turn on their own.
Other Republicans in Congress are getting similarly targeted by conservative tea party groups for not making the "defunding" of Obamacare their highest priority, too. "You fund it. You own it," has become the mantra against "moderates" in the GOP who dare believe that such a self-destructive strategy — threatening to shut down the federal government over the president's signature policy issue — is just plain loony.
Even by the standards of Washington, a place where a rational conversation about health care in America no longer seems possible, this is getting beyond the pale. And there are also no shortage of conservative commentators, including such luminaries as Rich Lowry and Charles Krauthammer, who think it's foolish, too. Yet, true believers like Sen. Ted Cruz labor on, the Texas Republican having recently implored his fellow party members to not "blink" in the Obamacare fight.
Is this a policy debate or jihad? What Senator Cruz and others seek is for Republicans to refuse renewed government funding this fall unless Obamacare is defunded or delayed. That makes Oct. 1 a potentially critical deadline. That is the next major milestone for health care reform: the opening of regional exchanges through which people can buy health insurance if they are not covered by their employer.
Whether the shutdown is accomplished through a budget impasse or by refusing to pass a debt limit bill is mere speculation at this point. The bottom line is that House Republicans are poised to take the federal government hostage, and cause all sorts of hardship to the nation's economy and national security, in the cause of denying millions of Americans decent, affordable health care. And those in the GOP who fail to comply may find themselves branded as pariahs.
Whatever the faults of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it surely doesn't justify this kind of mindless extremism. For most Americans, health care reform has brought only positive change — cheaper drugs for seniors, insurance coverage for young adults under their parents' policies, and the expectation that Americans will no longer be denied coverage for pre-existing medical conditions. Repealing or delaying the law would mean millions of people would lose insurance coverage.
Frankly, those things opponents tend to harp on — that the law is raising costs, that businesses will be hurt or that people will lose coverage — have yet to materialize. Most small businesses aren't directly affected, most large employers already offer health insurance, and the government has shown a willingness to be flexible in the law's implementation (including delaying the employer mandate until 2015).
It's telling that opponents seem to invent new deficiencies in Obamacare by the day, and often they are contradictory. The law is anti-business and it's too pro-business; it rations medical care and it's too generous with coverage; it raises costs but will cut payments to providers. How it can accomplish all these things is mind-boggling.
What's frightening is that the back-and-forth over Obamacare has gotten so divorced from reality that it's hard to tell what opponents truly believe and how much is just antagonism toward the president. As President Obama observed recently, the bashing has become a game — one that unfortunately toys with the economic security of millions of Americans.
Under these circumstances, it's not too difficult a stretch to imagine true believers forcing House leadership to go the mattresses when they return next month and prepare for a government shutdown, one that could be far more disastrous than those of 1995 and 1996. That might be good for Democrats and any hope for gains in the off-year elections, but it's hard to see how average Americans stand to gain anything from such craziness.