Editor’s Note: Having posted this over Labor Day weekend, I think it is worth reposting now as Republicans in Congress return to Washington from telling their constituents they support defunding Obamacare and now telling each other they need to take out Ted Cruz and Mike Lee for daring to challenge them to put their voting where their mouth is.
During the 1988 Republican Convention, then Vice President George H. W. Bush uttered a phrase that would destroy his Presidency — “Read my lips, no new taxes.”
Just two years later, voters realized they had read a lie on President Bush’s lips. He negotiated a budget agreement with Democrats in the United States Congress that raised taxes. Republicans in the House of Representatives rallied against their own President. Ed Rollins, then Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, advised Republicans to campaign against the President in 1990. “Do not hesitate to distance yourself from the President,” Rollins wrote in a famous memo. President Bush demanded congressional Republicans fire Rollins, but the House Republicans held on him. The House GOP lost a net of 8 seats and the Senate GOP lost 1 seat.
President Bush would ride a wave of popularity in 1991 due to victory in the Gulf War and use a 91% approval rating to have Ed Rollins fired by refusing to campaign with Republican candidates until Rollins left. A year later, with a struggling economy, a conservative base that would neither forget nor forgive his lie, and a primary challenger named Pat Buchanan to embarrass him in New Hampshire with a stronger than expected showing, President George H. W. Bush would be defeated by Bill Clinton. Conservatives were willing to throw out President Bush because of his lie. Many of them rallied to a third party, H. Ross Perot, who garnered 18.9% of the vote.
Bush got 63% of self-described moderate Republicans and 82% of self-described conservative Republicans. Compare that to four years later after one full term of Bill Clinton. Bob Dole would get 72% of moderate Republicans, up 9% from George H. W. Bush, and 88% of conservative Republicans, up 6% from George H. W. Bush. Among conservative independents, Bush got 53% with Perot getting 30%. Bob Dole would get 60% of that demographic four years later.
In the Republican Primary of 1992, Pat Buchanan, explaining his decision to primary President Bush went straight back to the 1990 tax increase, said
If the country wants to go in a liberal direction, if the country wants to go in the direction of [Senate Democratic Leader] George Mitchell and [Speaker] Tom Foley, it doesn’t bother me as long as I’ve made the best case I can. What I can’t stand are the back-room deals. They’re all in on it, the insider game, the establishment game—this is what we’re running against.
One upstart candidate who took Rollins’s advice to not wrap his arms around President Bush was a state representative from Ohio named John Boehner. Boehner had primaried a sitting Republican, Rep. Buz Lukens, who had refused to resign after a sex scandal. Boehner, in a heavily Republican district, beat Lukens in the primary, then won the general. Perhaps it was the heavy tilt to the GOP in that district that left Boehner immune to the national angst over George H. W. Bush’s lie. I say perhaps, because John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the Republican leadership in Washington are on the verge of their own “Read My Lips” lie.
Since 2010, they have pledged to do anything and everything to fight and end Obamacare. 40 times the House Republicans have taken symbolic votes so their voters know they are committed to repeal. On March 23, 2013, Mitch McConnell tweeted his plan to repeal Obamacare by driving up constituent outrage.
“Constituent pressure is overriding the view that virtually all Democrats have had that Obamacare is sort of like the Ten Commandments, handed down and every piece of it is sacred and you can’t possibly change any of it ever,” McConnell said. “When you see that begin to crack then you know the facade is breaking up.”
Of course, Republicans are doing their best to highlight and stoke the kind of constituent anger that would force Democrats to tweak the law. In fact, if Democrats come under enough pressure, Republicans believe they might be able to inject Obamacare into the broader entitlement-reform discussion they are planning to tie to the debt-limit debate this summer.
But now, with a continuing resolution before them, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and their cohorts are refusing to hold to their word to fight Obamacare. The constituent outrage they are driving up is against them.
So desperate are they to have you believe they are willing to fight Obamacare while they are actually caving, they would have Americans believe they are willing to throw the world economy into chaos over a possible default of American credit obligations rather than possibly take public blame for a government shutdown. The debt ceiling strategy is the same one they abandoned in January and mid-summer.
This is their “Read My Lips” moment with the American people.
More and more Americans are echoing Pat Buchanan that “They’re all in on it, the insider game, the establishment game—this is what we’re running against.” One need look no further than what’s happening at town halls and on the internet around the country this very week.
Last night, Heritage Action for America had another town hall on its Defund It tour. The fire marshall at their location had to keep the growing crowd at bay. This was not the first time that has happened this past month. All over the country, long lines have appeared at these events. Heritage Action has gotten bigger rooms for the events and still the crowds have filled the town halls. At first, Republicans in Washington claimed it was just the star attraction of Ted Cruz drawing people to the Heritage Action events. But the crowds have gotten bigger and bigger even without Ted Cruz there.
The Senate Conservatives Fund has begun building pressure on Republicans, running ads around the country urging people to call their Senators to defund Obamacare.
In Texas, tea party activists have had town hall meetings with a cardboard cutout of Congressman Pete Sessions, who has refused to meet with his constituents, given his strong opposition to defunding Obamacare. The trend is growing, with other tea party groups doing the same — putting cardboard cutouts of their congressmen on a stage with a full house to berate the absent congressmen.
FreedomWorks has set up an action site and has been motivating its army of activists around the country to go to town halls. Likewise it is running ads pushing to defund Obamacare.
And now ForAmerica and Tea Party Patriots have joined together in more town halls and online efforts. ForAmerica and Tea Party Patriots are doing an “Exempt America Tour” targeting Republicans. Their tour covers Lexington, Kentucky; Austin, Texas; Jackson, Mississippi; Columbia, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia and DC. ForAmerica has 3.5 million fans on its Facebook page and is urging all of them to call their Congressmen. I’m told they’ve already generated over 30,000 calls, including 7,000 to John Boehner. CNN, USA Today, and local media around the country are paying attention to the efforts.
An hour after ForAmerica urged people to call Eric Cantor’s office, more than 1,000 people did. In one hour.
Republicans in Congress have convinced themselves they are going to suffer a backlash from independent voters over shutting down the government. But consider 40% of Americans do not even know Obamacare is still law. Seriously. Republicans have sold themselves on their own defeat instead of working to actually defund and defeat Obamacare.
Instead of pushing out the message about Obamacare and highlighting its damaging effects, Republicans in Congress have decided to run a smear campaign against tea party groups, Heritage Action, Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund, ForAmerica, and against Ted Cruz and Mike Lee personally. As Ted Cruz noted on Rush Limbaugh yesterday, Republicans are fighting against the defund effort more than Democrats are.
Senator Rob Portman of Ohio wrote a letter to Kathleen Sebelius about Obamacare. All he wants is Obamacare delayed until the infrastructure is in place to handle the volume of people who will be forced into the exchanges. He won’t defund it. He does not even want to delay — except to make sure “the necessary leadership and preparation are in place to ensure that the marketplace can handle the volume on day one of enrollment.”
Republicans in Congress who have campaigned against Obamacare and said they’d do everything they could to stop it are in danger of being driven from Washington. But it won’t be Democrats who do it — it’ll be Republicans who have given up and decided there is no point showing up because “[t]hey’re all in on it, the insider game, the establishment game” and Americans can’t actually win despite changing the party in power.
“Read my lips, no new taxes” has become “We’ll do anything to stop Obamacare.” The only saving grace is that the former led to the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, fueled by Republicans who decided they had to take their party back. Perhaps the later will lead to the Cruz Revolution.
For the record, the United States would not actually default, but in the last two consecutive debt ceiling fights, Congressional Republicans used that rhetoric to convince conservatives they could not fight on either debt ceiling increase and should, instead, use the continuing resolution to attack Obamacare — the continuing resolution they are now opposed to using to attack Obamacare.