Why the Establishment Is Wrong and the Defund Gambit Can Work

"Dumbest idea I've ever heard."  "Can't happen."  "Picket had a better chance."

So say some of the right's sharpest and most experienced political minds of the defund ObamaCare effort.  Finding Beltway critics of the defund gambit is like finding oil in the Bakken Formation (in that critics are plentiful, not that the Beltway oozes unrefined black sludge under pressure).

The defund gambit carries risk; there is no way around that.  As long as Harry Reid and Barack Obama are willing to shut down the government rather than spare people from the added expense, reduced choice, and invasions of privacy that ObamaCare brings, things will get dicey.  Ironically, however, it will be the Democrats themselves who serve as the catalyst for conservative success.

Here's how it can happen.

In order to score a political win in a government shutdown, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and others must portray the situation as intolerable.  That portrayal stimulates an incentive within the Beltway crowd, the media, and (to a lesser extent) the citizenry to end the shutdown.

Once the demand to open non-essential government services reaches a fever pitch, the GOP (who have no incentive to extend the shutdown) can simply say, "Great, let's hammer out a deal and reopen government."  Once Obama's party comes to the table, the GOP will have won, because any negotiations will mean repealing, delaying, and/or de-funding ObamaCare -- not a 100% repeal/delay/defund, but something higher than 0%.

Certainly the Democrats will realize that negotiation will mean giving away some of their precious domestic "achievement," and thus they will resist coming to the bargaining table.  But Obama, Reid, et al. will be trapped by their own rhetoric.  If the shutdown is so bad, and the GOP want to end it, then the pressure to negotiate a deal becomes more and more intense.

Making matters more advantageous for Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, John Boehner, etc. is the long-arching media narrative that compromise is the holiest of all political rites.  This standoff puts the eager-to-compromise GOP against the Democrat position of "No way.  No how.  Not even going to talk about it."  That political ground becomes increasingly difficult to hold as time passes.

Despite the potential viability of this course of action, many on both left and right believe that a government shutdown is a guaranteed disaster for the GOP.  Shutdown-phobia has been the conventional wisdom in Washington for nearly two decades.  A close look at the evidence, however, reveals a not-so-shocking truth: Washington is wrong.

There is zero measurable historical evidence that suggestions of shutting down the government will be electorally damaging to the Republican Party.  None.  Republicans held the House and Senate before the last partial shutdown.  They held it after.  Bill Clinton's approval ratings cratered from 53% when the first shutdown began to 42% by the tail-end of the second (a period of about seven weeks).

Compare the 1996 GOP's electoral fortunes to those of the exceedingly cautious 2011-2012 Republicans:

1996: Lost presidency, +2 Senate Seats, -7 House seats.

2012: Lost presidency, -2 Senate seats, -7 House seats.

Besides the utter absence of electoral damage done by the prolonged 1995-1996 shutdown, the Newt Gingrich-led Congress successfully wrested the agenda-setting power in Washington away from the presidency.  As then-Majority Whip Tom Delay said on the Mark Levin Show last week, "[the shutdown] was the most important thing we ever did," adding, "The result of that was for six years Bill Clinton did not get to sign one major bill that he initiated." 

Looking past the politics of the next election, we must recognize that there may be no "next time" for stopping ObamaCare.  Once the main subsidies begin, there is little doubt that the law's politics will only get more difficult.  And while some welcome the coming "train wreck," the do-it-and-see-how-bad-it-is approach is a satisfying retort but a poor practical theory.

Government programs don't come and go based on performance.  Social Security, for example, is popular not because it's a good way to provide for retirement; the opposite is true.  Social Security is popular because ending it would put people without other means of income in a dire situation.  Yes, those people could have made other provisions in the absence of the program (which would serve them better than Social Security), but the reality is that the program wasn't absent, and now many can't make other provisions.

The ObamaCare subsidies will lead to the same brand of dependency.  ObamaCare will be poorly run, unable to fulfill the promises made at its passing, but as long as millions of people are receiving billions of dollars based on the law's provisions, history cautions us that repeal becomes virtually impossible.

Given a concrete path to victory and the shrinking prospects of future success, the defund effort is not only winnable, but the most urgent and realistic attempt yet at stopping the law.  It's time for the establishment to get in line.  It's time for conservatives to unite.  We are not guaranteed a win, but we have a strong game plan.  Now we need the whole team to buy in.

Joseph Ashby is a talk radio host in Wichita, KS and the creator of some of the year's best viral videos.  He would be honored to hear from readers on Twitter and Facebook.