Why Republicans Want to Shut Down the Government This Time

If they don’t get their way on Obamacare, they’re going to hold their breath until the government shuts down.

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Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questions Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. As Mueller nears the end of his 12 years as head of the law enforcement agency, the committee questioned him about the IRS, surveillance activities, and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Count Texas Sen. Ted Cruz among the growing ranks of Republicans who want to shut down the government – because Republicans always look good when threatening a shutdown – over the party's Quixotic quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Cruz is in Iowa today laying the groundwork for his presumptive 2016 presidential bid and, according to a Tweet from National Review Online's Robert Costa (h/t Dave Weigel), told conservatives this morning that he won't support continued funding of the government without a full defunding of Obamacare. That makes him the third GOP senator this month to push that line, joining Utah conservative Mike Lee and Florida's Marco Rubio, who told a Weekly Standard breakfast last week that "I will not vote for a continuing resolution unless it defunds Obamacare." (At the risk of being pedantic: The current continuing resolution runs through the end of the current fiscal year; the next funding fight will be over regular appropriations bills, not another continuing resolution.)

As a group, the three men form a conservative thought leader critical mass. Cruz and Lee can be counted on as reliable barometers of the GOP base's id. Rubio is desperately scrambling to get back into the party base's good graces after displaying a dangerous proclivity toward actually trying to constructively legislate – as opposed to confining himself to angry stands on principle – on the immigration issue. That sort of thing (an ability to work with political adversaries to get something done) might play well with swing voters in a general presidential election, but it won't fly in GOP primaries.

It seems clear that while the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are gearing up for a pro-Obamacare push, we can expect an increasing drumbeat of far-right lawmakers and commentators to talk up the idea of shutting down the government barring an Obamacare defunding. Can it be very long before Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul adds his support, completing the Axis of the Unhinged?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Look, the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular with voters. But the groundswell of support for a defund-or-shutdown stand will be confined to consumers of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh's shtick and redstate.com. I'd like Cruz, Lee and Rubio to explain how exactly the results of the 2012 presidential election – where a president whose signature accomplishment is Obamacare was re-elected by a comfortable margin – can be interpreted as a mandate to threaten government shutdowns.

On the one hand, the whole thing's as absurd as the endless Obamacare repeal votes the House insists on taking. There's no chance of Obamacare getting repealed or defunded this year or next. None. Zero. It won't pass the Senate and it won't get by the president's veto stamp.

But that's also what makes this flavor of Obamacare Derangement Syndrome irresponsible and dangerous. At least the House repeal votes merely waste Congress's time. Threatening a shutdown is akin to threatening a debt default: Republicans would be holding out the prospect of deliberately harming the economy (as my colleague Pat Garofalo ably illustrated when there was talk of a shutdown in 2011) unless they get their way on policy. Even sustained talk of a shutdown will further undermine public confidence in the government's ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

And it's also politically dumb for the GOP, which is already suffering from dismal public approval in polls. Opinion surveys show that the GOP is unpopular and that most of the public wants our political leaders to work together to get things done, valuing that over taking uncompromising stands. People like Lee might try to spin a prospective shutdown as the Democrats' choice – "If congressional Democrats want to oppose appropriations bills without additional Obamacare funding, shut down the government, and side with the president and Big Business against the American people, then it's their choice" – but voters will see through that. What this talk does is present, again, the GOP's radical, intransigent side to the public – although that may admittedly be the only side the party has left at this point, talk of a party revamp be damned.

But this is what the GOP has become: a poseur party, where the importance of ideology is matched by the way it is expressed – the more aggressive and uncompromising the better. (That's basically why Liz Cheney is challenging incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi, Wyo., in a primary – sure they're both conservative, but she brings Fox News flash to the table.)

Talk of a government shutdown will boost Cruz's presidential prospects and help rescue Rubio's with the GOP base. And really, that's all the party seems to care about these days anyway.

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