The Republican push to defund Obamacare defied the strategic wisdom of the ages.
“Avoid what is strong,” Sun Tzu said, “to strike what is weak.” According to Machiavelli, “Prudence consists in knowing how to recognize the nature of the different dangers and in accepting the least bad as good.” Von Moltke defined victory as achieving “the highest goal attainable with available means.”
In contravention of all these axioms, the defunders stormed the barricades at their strongest point. They exhibited no willingness to distinguish among bad options or appreciation for what was really achievable. At best, their approach was a high-risk, low-reward strategy. As it turns out, there wasn’t even any reward.
The shutdown fight has been interesting in its particulars but dull in its overall trajectory, which was so predictable that the news stories on the endgame almost could have been filed in advance. Jack Germond and Jules Witcover called their book on the 1984 presidential election “Wake Us When It’s Over.” No one who went to sleep two weeks ago would be surprised to wake up and find a last-minute, Senate-led deal that gives Republicans precious little for their trouble.
Even bomb-throwers hesitated to light this fuse. Sen. Rand Paul never thought the shutdown was a good strategy. When the allegedly wholly impractical libertarian doubts your tactical judgment, it should be taken as a warning.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the very able point man for the defunders, kept the strategy afloat longer than most people would have expected, but he could never explain persuasively the path from a shutdown to a signing ceremony in the White House defunding the president’s signature piece of legislation.
A key part of the theory was that, in the heat of a shutdown, red-state Democrats would buckle and join the anti-Obamacare bandwagon. Given the near-certainty that Republicans would be blamed for the shutdown, this was always fanciful. Never mind that the outside groups supporting defunding were more invested in hitting wayward Republicans than taking the fight to the other side.
Republicans did the best they could during the shutdown. They passed rifle-shot bills out of the House funding specific functions of government that put Democrats in a tight spot. They highlighted the idiotic excesses of the National Park Service. They hit Democrats for their unwillingness to negotiate. But all of this amounted to damage control.
In the end, although polls showed the gap relatively narrow, more people blamed Republicans than Democrats. As the anti-government party that was forcing the issue, the Republicans were always going to have trouble escaping blame. The shutdown eroded what wasn’t a great store of GOP political capital to begin with. Gallup and Wall Street Journal/NBC polls showed the party’s favorability scraping bottom.
On top of all this, the party went into the fight divided, with the House Republicans most enthusiastic about the strategy foisting it on their leadership. They proved again that, in the right circumstances, they can control the House Republican Conference, which gives them control of … the House Republican Conference. House Republicans went through weeks of contortions that had more to do with intra-Republican politics and small differences in tactics magnified into matters of principle than achieving any larger purpose.
An initial plan promoted by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor simply to force a vote on defunding in the Senate and then move to a clean continuing resolution was blasted by defunders as empty symbolism. After a few weeks of political pain, Republicans ended up in the same place: The House voted on a defunding provision that was quickly pushed aside by the Senate, and it was forced to accept an essentially clean continuing resolution.
Now, the same defunders who argued that Obamacare would be unrepealable beginning Oct. 1 with the opening of the exchanges are vowing to fight on against the health-care law — as they should. It will be a long fight, requiring not just passion and principle but also a little strategic wisdom.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.