About Those Conservative ‘Squishes’
The GOP is split between those who insist on making a point, and those who want to make some progress.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz recently gave a speech to some FreedomWorks activists, delivering a fascinating retelling of the Senate gun-control fight. After taking credit for killing the bill with his filibuster threat, Mr. Cruz went on to divide the Republican caucus between those who have “principles” and those who are “a bunch of squishes.”
This is one way to divvy up the GOP caucus, though it is a largely false (and self-serving) construction. The real divisions in today’s Republican Party are not so much over ideology as they are over strategy. The GOP is split between those who insist on making a point, and those who want to make some progress.
Take the gun fight. A month ago, the president’s gun package was in tatters. The GOP had sat back and let Democratic infighting claim the spotlight. The headlines were about how Mr. Obama’s proposals for an “assault weapons” ban, and magazine-capacity limits, and universal background checks were all about to die—at the hands of his own Senate Democrats.
Into this perfect Democratic storm flew Mr. Cruz, Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Utah’s Mike Lee, vowing to filibuster any bill that undermined Second Amendment rights. Heritage Action promised to “score” against any Republican that didn’t join them. Had this tactic succeeded, it would only have shielded Democrats from owning their gun failure. President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were thrilled to turn the headlines for the next week to Republican “obstructionism.”
This was never about the principled versus the squishes. The Cruz faction wanted to make a point—to prove (as if anyone doubted it) that the GOP believes in the “Constitution.” The Republicans voting to proceed to a debate and votes wanted a political win, exposing Democratic divisions and forcing Mr. Obama to take sole responsibility for the defeat of his first second-term agenda item.
Or take last week’s House fight over a Republican bill to drain ObamaCare’s $5 billion slush fund. The Obama team is moving to grab those dollars and use them to prop up its failing insurance exchanges. The GOP bill would have moved the money to a separate ObamaCare program that is currently failing in its promise to help Americans with pre-existing conditions.
Republicans were going to force Democrats to choose between sick people and their fun money. As such, their bill had a real shot at getting Democrats themselves to kill off a piece of ObamaCare, as the GOP took credit for helping the sick people who President Obama has failed. This would have been progress, both on policy and politics.
But the absolutists wanted to make a point: Republicans must not vote for any legislation, ever, that might tacitly underpin, in any way, any aspect of ObamaCare—even a program for the sick. Full repeal, or nothing! Mr. Cruz’s staff trashed it. Heritage Action slammed it. The Club for Growth misrepresented what it would do and threatened to score the vote. House leaders pulled it.
So Mr. Obama keeps his slush money—to prop up his failing exchanges, enroll more Americans and fund his liberal activist groups—making it harder to ever dismantle the bill. But hey, at least Americans get “the point.” Altogether now, and once more for the ages: The GOP wants to repeal ObamaCare.
Next up, debt-ceiling fight.
The dishonest part is the way in which today’s self-anointed arbiters of “conservatism” cast these disputes over strategy in ideological terms. The vast majority of today’s Republicans are in fact ardent defenders of the Second Amendment, passionate about repealing ObamaCare, in favor of lower taxes. The big disagreements are over how best to accomplish these aims.
Yet disagree with Mr. Cruz on his filibuster strategy, and you are a “squish.” Take a different line from the Club for Growth on pre-existing conditions (or any of its poorly vetted Senate candidates), and you are “the establishment.” Think slightly different than Jim DeMint—now at Heritage, serving as maestro of the rebel orchestra—and you are not “conservative.” These terms are used with great calculation. Take our orders, or we will brand you a RINO in a primary.
These days, the squishes apparently include groups like Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks, which supported the pre-existing conditions bill. They include rock-ribbed conservatives like Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who did not join the gun filibuster threat—issued before the bill was written. “I’ve done more filibusters than Rand Paul is old,” said Mr. Coburn at the time—adding that his rule is to first read what he’s filibustering.
These groups are sincere in their belief that only by standing on principle can the party draw a sharp distinction with Mr. Obama. Yet it is, after all, possible to be both principled and . . . smart! It is principled to allow a congressional debate on guns (what is the GOP afraid of?), and smart to let Democrats own their gun failure. It is principled to chip away at ObamaCare, and smart to force Democrats to help do it.
Mr. Obama is betting the GOP keeps running into his fixed bayonets, shouting “repeal!” with their last, spent breath. The real debate within the GOP right now is whether battles might not be better won with canny flanking maneuvers. Bear that in mind next time someone hollers “squish.”