Pop star Miley Cyrus gained national attention in August when she performed a purposefully public and provocative onstage routine imitating sex acts with a foam finger at the Video Music Awards. It was the "twerk heard round the world," according to one observer.
It is safe to say from the resulting backlash that Cyrus didn't reestablish her Disney image with the American public. It didn't even win her accolades from her fiancé, who promptly ended their relationship. But that's no matter for the girl once known as Hannah Montana. You see, the point of the exhibition was to draw attention to herself, accumulate online clicks and sell more songs. In political terms, you might say she was playing to her base, not trying to win over swing voters.
Meanwhile in Congress, a much more meaningful effort is underway to bring additional free market reforms to health care and defund what has become known as Obamacare. While there is widespread agreement among Republicans in Congress that Obamacare is seriously flawed and should not be the law of the land, there is a big division on the strategy.
Some, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, believe that it is a fight worthy of a government shutdown showdown. Others, like Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, see a shutdown as a fool's errand.
One can shut down the government over the program but ultimately a shutdown will not advance conservative principles when the defunding effort fails – which it certainly will. President Obama is not going to suddenly agree to reverse the signature accomplishment of his presidency. This failure will only serve to weaken the effectiveness of conservatives who are actually making headway in areas like cutting government spending through sequestration. After all, Congress is already competing with DUI defense attorneys for public disdain.
Coburn is no milquetoast, no shrinking violet. He was a colossal thorn in the side of Republican leadership when he served in the House, always fighting against proposals he saw as crossing constitutional boundaries and constantly pushing for greater spending cuts than those offered. After he was elected to the Senate, I heard a group of House leaders discussing Coburn when one remarked, laughingly, "The Senate deserves him." House members – Republican or Democrat – almost always loath the upper body. Now Coburn is a voice of reason that Cruz is attacking for not supporting the dead-end strategy of a government shutdown.
Far too often people judge how "conservative" you are not by where you fall on the ideological spectrum but by demeanor. But simply being severe and obdurate doesn't make you more conservative. Achieving conservative goals does.
Republicans pursued a shutdown strategy less than two decades ago. It was a loser in every measurable way, including politically. Even if the American public agrees with you on substance, it doesn't support chaos and dysfunction. A solid majority of Americans support conservatives on getting rid of Obamacare. But they feel exactly the opposite if it means shutting down the government. And this is before the screaming headlines about economic apocalypse and tearjerker stories that are sure to appear.
You can ask Elvis but Miley Cyrus didn't invent onstage hip thrusts – and shutdown advocates didn't invent the demise of Obamacare. Its just that some ideas work only when executed correctly. Neither Cyrus nor Cruz are helping build public support for the larger cause but both are successful in building a larger profile with a distinct minority.
Repeatedly running into a brick wall doesn't prove your conservative mettle. But learning how to go around that wall to achieve your goals makes you strategic and much more likely to be successful.