Earlier this week, Republicans failed in their attempt to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding. The measure gained the support of 53 members of the Senate but fell short of the 60 needed to end debate effectively killing the measure. GOP lawmakers have vowed to fight on with various procedural maneuvers but the until they get 60 votes on their side, as long as there is a Democrat in the White House that opposes them on the issue, their only real choice will be the same as it was in the fall of 2013 with ObamaCare. They can either shut down the government or concede defeat. The reaction to that dilemma not only sums up the crisis of contemporary conservatism but also explains why Donald Trump is doing so well in the presidential race. Yet it is curious that so many of those who base their outrage at big government spending on their devotion to the Constitution never consider that the stalemates that anger them so were pretty much what the Founders intended.
Avoiding another shutdown controversy would seem to be the more sensible course of action. The last thing Republicans need heading into 2016 is a debilitating debate in which they will be branded as obstructionists rather than problem solvers. That doesn’t mean they give up advocating against Planned Parenthood funding due to the justified outrage over revelations about the group’s policies about selling fetal body parts. Since the only way conservatives will get their way on that issue, ObamaCare, or anything else on their agenda is to win in 2016, actions that would hurt their cause are counter productive.
But the need to carefully amass democratic majorities involving both major parties and to use the levers of power in such a way as to build consensus is precisely what is bugging many in the Republican base. They much prefer Ted Cruz’s tactics aimed at running roughshod not only over the traditions of Congress but in blowing up the system anytime it thwarts their desires. House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are viewed by liberals as right-wing hardliners and thorns in the side of President Obama, but they are put down as sellouts and RINOs by Tea Partiers who believe that their efforts to prevail by conventional politics are of no use.
It’s no coincidence that Donald Trump endorsed a shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding yesterday. The current frontrunner in the GOP presidential race more or less endorsed Cruz’s stand on the issue. The impetus for his rise in the polls stems directly from frustration with the political class and in particular with the inability of the Republicans elected in the party’s midterm sweep in 2014 to parlay that victory into tangible results. The more outrageous his stands and comments are, the more inclined many conservatives are to flock to him precisely because they have succumbed to despair over their inability to prevail. A Trump government shutdown is exactly what they are wearing for.
Some of that frustration is understandable. The stranglehold of the left over so much of the mainstream media combined with the dogged resistance of President Obama and the Democrats to compromising with conservatives has left them wondering whether relying on the democratic system is justified. They worry that the ability of liberals to institute fundamental changes like ObamaCare and to stymie efforts to reform spending and tax policy, let alone halting funding to an organization like Planned Parenthood demonstrates that playing by the old rules no longer works. They see anyone who is prepared to practice politics that way as part of the problem, not the solution.
Many of them know that Trump is no conservative and has been all over the place on abortion, spending, and every other issue throughout his decades in the spotlight, but also think his combative attitude is more important than ideology, consistency, or even a grasp of how government works.
But what they are forgetting in their anger is the fact that the Constitution they purport to revere and the ideas behind it are the same factors that are preventing them from getting their way at the moment.
The Founders did not intend for change to be easy or as uncomplicated as an order from a Trump-style CEO to fix things or be fired. They created a system of very complicated checks and balances that allow the executive or even a strong faction within Congress to obstruct the will of the majority for a reason. They constructed a government that would function, but they were as afraid of mob rule and the whims of demagogues as they were of chaos and inertia.
Voters say they are fed up with politicians and it’s hard to blame them for thinking that. But to embrace shutdowns and to eschew the normal give and take of the business of government is to damn not so much politicians as politics. And that is exactly the sort of attitude for which the framers of the Constitution had no patience. The genius of the system they designed lay in the obstacles they created to obstruct majorities from pushing ahead without a national consensus behind them. Those like Boehner and McConnell, who labor to manipulate that system to maximum advantage, may be imperfect and uninspiring leaders, but the politics they pursue is the only constitutional path that makes sense. The only way for conservatives to win is not to seek shortcuts but to win elections that will give them the same kind of power that Barack Obama briefly had in 2010 when his control of both Congress (including 60 votes in the Senate) and the White House enabled him to pass ObamaCare.
It does not good to merely rail at Planned Parenthood or those who try and fail to defund it in the absence of such a stranglehold on the government. It will do even less good for that cause to embrace another shutdown that will harm the GOP’s chances of winning in 2016. Democracy requires patience. But that is one quality that a lot of conservatives seem to have in short supply these days. It remains to be seen whether their Trumpmania is a passing phase or a sign that the right has truly given up on the Constitutional system they claim to wish to preserve.