Conservatives in Congress are mounting what will likely be a futile fight to defund Planned Parenthood, even if it means shutting down the entire federal government.
Just those first 12 words amount to the journalistic equivalent of “It was a dark and stormy night...” This is a path the Republican Party’s right flank has been down several times before since 2011, and they’ve never succeeded in achieving the policy outcome for which they began their fight in the first place. In 2013, conservatives forced a government shutdown over the funding of Obamacare. It lasted two-and-a-half weeks, but when the doors reopened, the healthcare law was untouched. Earlier this year, conservatives again held up federal funding, this time for the Department of Homeland Security, as part of a battle to block President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Ultimately, Republicans caved, DHS stayed open, and the president’s policy went forward—until it was blocked by the courts in a move completely unrelated to the maneuverings in Congress.
The strategy is a total loser. It has never worked, and yet it is one that conservatives continue to embrace as a means of battling a pair of bogeymen that their supporters revile with just about equal fervor: the Obama administration and the GOP leadership.
How is that possible?
In the view of conservatives, Republican leaders have never actually waged the full fight to the bitter end. Even when they brought the nation to the brink of default in 2011. Even when they shut down the government two years later. And even when they nearly let homeland-security funding lapse earlier this year. The party leadership always blinked, eventually. Nevermind that Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell folded each time only after Republicans had incurred substantial political damage, and only after the White House and congressional Democrats had made clear they would move no further. According to this thinking, if GOP leaders had held out a little longer, a conservative victory would have been at hand.
“They don’t want a fight at all, and that’s part of the problem,” Representative Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina conservative, told me when I put this question to him last week. “The base has been waiting now for four years for a fight, and our leadership has never given it to them. We tried a little bit on Obamacare. We tried a little bit on immigration. But at the end we ultimately never stood up for what the base of the party wants. That’s why this is so critical.”
Elected in 2010, Mulvaney has become one of the conservatives most frustrated with the party leadership. But he’s also among the most transparent. One of the reasons Boehner and McConnell have never wanted a shutdown fight is because they know that it’s almost impossible for Republicans to emerge with a political victory. Republicans can protest as loudly as they want that it is Democrats causing the crisis by refusing to compromise—Why does President Obama prioritize funding for Planned Parenthood over money for our troops? is one talking point you can expect to hear repeatedly. But the general public is always going to be quicker to blame a government shutdown on the party that constantly rails about wanting to rein in the government. The sharp drop in standing that Republicans suffered during the 2013 shutdown bore this out, and it was only the equally damaging rollout of Obamacare that allowed them to recover so quickly ahead of the 2014 elections.
Mulvaney didn’t dispute the conventional wisdom that Republicans would lose the spin game of a shutdown over Planned Parenthood. But his argument in favor of trying anyway was revealing. The conservative base put Republicans in charge of Congress, and it is the constituency to which the leadership needs to be accountable. And what about the rest of the country? That’s the wrong audience, Mulvaney suggested. “My leadership is trying to appeal to independent and swing voters who don’t care what we do right now and won’t until two or three months before the election,” he told me. The base is paying attention now, in other words. Everyone else will forget about it come election time.
This is, of course, a remarkably cynical view of the current state of American democracy and the ever-shortening attention span of the electorate. But it is instructive as a way to view the latest confrontation on Capitol Hill. It also explains why Boehner has spent much of his speakership banging his head against the wall, and why Beltway insiders awoke Tuesday to read yet another story suggesting his future is in doubt. Mulvaney is not alone in his thinking. He’s secured the written commitment of 28 of his Republican colleagues to oppose any spending bill that does not defund Planned Parenthood—just about enough to force Boehner to rely on Democratic votes to keep the government open.
As I wrote last week, Mulvaney and his allies are trying to use the threat of a coup against Boehner as a way to force him to wage the Planned Parenthood fight. That might not work for a variety of reasons, one of which is that Democrats could bail out Boehner to keep him as speaker. Conservatives like Erick Erickson believe that even if they did, Boehner would be so wounded that his reelection as speaker in 2017 would be impossible. Yet just as Republicans would have over a year to recover politically from any shutdown fallout, so too would Boehner, who has done it before.
The battle that conservatives are mounting isn’t about Planned Parenthood, and it’s not even really about Boehner, or McConnell for that matter. As Mulvaney told me, the lesson they are taking from the surprising staying power of Donald Trump—that “conservative” who has supported tax hikes, abortion rights, and Democrats in the past—is that the Republican base just wants someone who will fight, anyone and everyone. The September 30 deadline for funding the government is an opportunity to fight, and the fight is what it's all about.