It’s probably true that Republicans won’t be able to force Planned Parenthood to shut down its human organ harvesting business. Not this year. Maybe not any year. And it is probably true that Republicans won’t be able to stop the flow of over $500 million to the abortion conglomerate. At least not until the GOP builds a veto/filibuster-proof majority and wins the presidency. So, not soon. Maybe never. And it’s undoubtedly true that flailing, pointing at shiny objects, and creating unrealistic expectations is counterproductive in the long run.
But here are some other things that are also true.
No American—save a lobbyist, perhaps—is inspired to support a political party because its leaders did a bang-up job passing a bipartisan highway bill. Or put it this way: If the GOP is unwilling or unable to make a compelling argument for cutting off taxpayer funding to an organization that performs vivisections on human beings, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for them make the case that this iteration of the GOP needs to exist at all.
Mitch McConnell, who argues that Republicans must wait to win the presidency before taking on the abortion fight, assures his constituents that the GOP won’t be the ones to risk a shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding. By preemptively conceding this, he’s conceded that the GOP is culpable for any shutdowns and that those shutdowns are events that should be avoided at all costs.
Neither of those things is true.
Can Democrats stop anything by shouting “shutdown?” Can they unilaterally define what new spending limits look like? If not, why is a shutdown fight over spending more worthwhile than a shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood? Republicans, after all, don’t have the votes to pass any item on their agenda (whatever that agenda theoretically entails).
Here’s something McConnell might have said instead: I’m not sure what’s going to happen, yet. But if Democrats want to shut down government to preserve funding for doctors who think it’s hilarious to jumpstart a dead baby’s heart after it’s been extracted his mother, I’ll let them explain that to the American people.
For many conservatives, this fight is easier to grasp and more morally consequential than sequestration or the debt ceiling. It’s one that would be more difficult for Democrats, as well.
I recently appeared on a radio program with three smart Beltway types who were discussing the possibility of shutdown. All of them stressed that these sorts of distractions, these vacuous explosions of conservative perennial hysterics, were undermining the truest, most vital functions of Washington—the mundane work of passing Ex-Im bills and spending money on infrastructure. (This is how I imagine Republican leadership views these episodes, as well.)
Anyway, if this were true, why would President Obama put the entire economy at risk over something as inconsequential, something so removed from the essential job of governing, as Planned Parenthood funding? Well, because subsidizing the abortion industry is just as important to liberals as defunding it is to conservatives. The only difference is that the GOP is unwilling to chance a shutdown over the issue.
Leadership says they can’t win. But the idea that you have to extract substantive policy every time you engage in a political bout is absurd. Change happens incrementally. The Center for Medical Progress videos are not as well known to the general public as they are to grassroots conservatives. Mostly because, as Sen. Mike Lee pointed out yesterday, of media complicity. Even a potential shutdown fight would force—as much as such things can be forced—the media to explain what precipitated this deadlock in the first place.
More than that, the Left has rarely been forced to support specific abortion policy or debate the moral dimensions of the procedure. Most often, pro-choice politicians are allowed to offer some crisp platitude or pretend that Planned Parenthood is only institution in America that can deliver contraception or women’s health. Otherwise, they’ve struggled. It’s uncomfortable to defend abortion. Judging from most of their answers, it’s uncomfortable to even say the word “abortion.”
So it’s unclear why Beltway wisdom says abortion is a loser for the GOP. No poll that I know of finds a majority of Americans in support of third-trimester abortions, and I can’t imagine one exists that will find support for the callous indifference to life that we see on those PP videos. Yet, right now, most Democrats support abortion to the moment of crowning, and no one asks them to clarify this position. Having to unambiguously defend Planned Parenthood’s actions would be about the most awkward position Red State Democrats took in their entire careers.
Only a threat of a shutdown could force that kind of debate. Maybe. Yet a shutdown petrifies DC Republicans.
Soon after the 2013 shutdown ended, The Washington Post ran this piece outlining how devastating the entire shutdown had been, an event that had triggered “major damage to GOP” and broad dissatisfaction with government, in general. In truth, one of these two things generally favors conservatives, who could not care much about the state functions threated by a shutdown. Buried in the story, we learn that the Democrats’ unfavorable had also spiked. Among conservatives, 8 in 10 were dissatisfied with the GOP. But was that anger driven by the “hardline” tactics or was it the perception that the GOP botched the effort or was too ineffective?
Fast-forward a little more than a year later. Republicans take the Senate majority in a commanding sweep, winning nearly every contested race in the country, and governorships, and expanding their hold onstate houses and adding to an already significant majority in the House. I’m not suggesting that a shutdown helped Republicans win. But what evidence is there that a single voter changed his or her ideological position or stayed home because of the partial shutdown of federal government—which, despite the best efforts of the hand-wringing press and president, didn’t sink the economy or effect most Americans in any tangible way?
McConnell attempted to satisfy pro-lifers this week, allowing a vote on the post-20-week ban that he knows will has no chance of passing and creates no genuine national debate. It won’t be enough. Just when the cravenness of the abortion movement is most graphically on display, Republicans ask their constituents to wait around for President Bobby Jindal to take care of the problem. Can you imagine Nancy Pelosi preemptively ceding the fight on Obamacare because she hadn’t nailed down the votes? (Though I hope the GOP doesn’t use reconciliation for anything other than repealing legislation that was passed using reconciliation.)
I’ve long argued that Boehner’s House doesn’t get enough credit for playing an important role in blocking harmful policies over the past eight years. It’s also true that the base’s expectations of a minority party are often out of whack with reality. And a shutdown for spectacle’s sake alone would be destructive. But a preemptive surrender is no better.