08/07/2013 08:53 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

There's A-gonna Be a Shootout (in the Obamacare Corral)!

The Republican Party is busily choosing sides in an upcoming fight. Now, in normal times that sentence would be parsed as: the Republican Party -- as a whole -- was choosing their strategy in a looming battle with Democrats. These days, due to the ever-more-visible deep divisions within the party itself, Republicans are instead choosing which side to take in an upcoming battle with itself. Which makes the entire exercise enjoyable for Democrats, who have a number of options of their own. But we'll get to that in a moment.

The fight is what could be termed the last battlefield for the anti-Obamacare absolutists. Choose your battlefield metaphor; there are a lot to select from (Thermopylae, Waterloo, the Alamo, the OK Corral, Custer's Last Stand, etc.). Conservatives know full well that this is the last bite they're ever going to get at the "repeal!" apple. Because if they fail this time around (as virtually everyone is predicting), then Obamacare will be fully implemented, and there simply will be no turning back.

Conservatives would dispute that, of course. But realistically, even if there are implementation problems with Obamacare's state exchanges (and there will be, nothing this big launches perfectly smoothly), from October onwards Republicans are never going to be able to propose simple elimination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the official name of "Obamacare"). People will be seeing too many benefits of the law for the Republican "repeal!" position to ever work again. Instead, Republicans will be all but forced to offer a viable alternative to Obamacare -- which they have not been able to do, as of yet. Their original cry, remember, was "repeal and replace!" but they've never been all that interested in replacing Obamacare with anything. They've tried a few halfhearted attempts at providing the good things in Obamacare and stripping out the bad things (by their definitions, of course), but these proposals just didn't add up -- literally, the math didn't work out. But after October (or January, when Obamacare fully kicks in), "repeal!" is going to be a dead issue without any sort of "replace!" proposal as well. Which means that the September budget bargaining is indeed the last chance for "repeal!" to work. Even Republican proponents of a government shutdown will tell you this -- it is, in fact, what lends their cause a sense of urgency among their base.

Republicans are facing two traps of their own making, here. Or, to mix up the metaphors, somehow they've painted themselves into two separate corners at the same time (OK, an Escher-designed house would be required for this one...). Because they've simultaneously lowered the bar for Obamacare to succeed and raised the bar for their own efforts to derail it. Both are contributing mightily to the conundrum the party now faces.

Since long before Obamacare ever passed into law, Republicans have been in full-on demonization mode. Their message was simple: not only will Obamacare not work, it will be the worst thing ever imaginable. The best example of this was Sarah Palin turning an idea to fund patients' discussions with their doctors about end-of-life issues into "death panels" who would convene with the stupendous power to decide which Americans should live and which should be killed off because they weren't productive members of society. That's a pretty nightmarish idea, made even more poignant by Palin's insistence that Obamacare would have meant her own baby boy would have faced such a Draconian panel, with the power of life or death for her baby. That would shock anyone's conscience. Of course, nothing even remotely resembling such a thing was in the law. But that didn't stop the Demonization Express train. Republicans almost fell over themselves to portray each and every (sometimes fictional) defect in the proposed law, in cartoonish fashion.

Republicans largely succeeded in this demonization, it should be noted. Millions of Americans are going to be downright shocked when Obamacare is fully implemented and nothing changes for them. Millions of other Americans will also be pleasantly surprised that things have gotten better for their own health care choices. In fact, Republicans' insistence on the "train wreck" that is coming means that anything short of an utter disaster can now be called a success by President Obama and the Democrats. The Republicans have thus lowered the bar for the success of Obamacare -- which they are not yet really even aware of, to hear them talk.

Which brings us to the second Republican trap. Ever since the law has passed, the Tea Partiers (especially in the House) have raised their own base's expectations that Obamacare could be killed off cleanly to stratospheric heights. Aided and abetted by their own echo chamber in the right-wing media, Tea Partiers have been confidently predicting the success of their efforts to defund, defang, or destroy Obamacare. Loudly. Their track record of 40 House votes to do so stands on its own. But deep down inside, they must know by now (surely they know?) that this is never going to actually happen. They are setting themselves up, once again, to fail. Oh, sure, the House is fully capable of all kinds of shenanigans, but the Senate is never going to go along with any of it. Which leaves the last resort they are contemplating now: shut down the government by refusing to pass a budget unless Obamacare is fully defunded. This way (they figure) their obstructionism works for them instead of against them. If no budget bill passes both the House and the Senate by October, then the government grinds to a halt. Victory!

Except, you know, for reality. The reality of the situation is working so hard against this tilting-at-windmills legislative tantrum that saner Republicans are speaking out against the idea even now. This party rift appears to be growing more intense, even though the battle won't be joined for another month. The sane wing of the party points out that: (1) the continuing resolution bill barely even affects the funding stream for Obamacare, since it is not "discretionary spending" in the first place, so even if they shut the government down successfully, Obamacare will still be funded; (2) even if the tactic succeeds, how long can they really push a government shutdown (one week? two? three, maybe?); and (3) Republicans will get the lion's share of the blame from the public if they do shut the government down, because unlike what they love to tell their base, many Americans (Social Security recipients, veterans who need a hospital, soldiers in uniform, those visiting National Parks, etc.) actually appreciate what the federal government does, and they're going to be very angry if Republicans interrupt these things.

But while the sane Republicans take the stance of "It ain't going to work, folks!" they are swimming up a very fast-moving stream. The Tea Partiers have convinced themselves that a government shutdown is the Holy Grail of the "repeal!" movement. This is the magic answer that is going to drive a stake through the heart of Obamacare forever. OK, maybe that was one metaphor too far, sorry. But the feeling of the base cannot be ignored: they're convinced this is going to work out just peachy for Republicans. They are wrong, but they are quite willing to take things to the brink to prove this, because they are so convinced that they are right. These high expectations are, again, a trap which the Republicans have created for themselves. They've been promising their base for approximately three or four years now that they hold the power to kill Obamacare in its cradle. Their base believed them (and you can't really blame them for doing so, when the message was pushed on them so forcefully).

But now reality is about to intrude. The question for Democrats is how to respond. There are three schools of thought as to how one party should react when the other party is having an internal battle. All of them could be used to great effect by Democrats in the next few months, in fact -- the options are nothing but good, really.

The first choice comes from an old Washington adage: "When the other party is fighting duels among themselves, just stand back and hold their coats for them." Call it the "do-nothing" approach. Since it's a Republican problem (of their own making), just sit quietly on the sidelines and let it play out. They're only damaging themselves, so don't even get involved to complicate matters.

The second choice is to sabotage one side or the other in the fight by throwing Democratic "support" to their opponents' position. I've already heard one Democratic operative react with glee to the Republican shutdown idea with: "bring it on!" Democrats know full well that if the Tea Party is successful in their efforts, it will make the Republican Party look bad. Since sane Republicans are also saying exactly the same thing, this allows the Tea Party to attack the sane wing with: "You're on the same side as the Democrats! Nancy Pelosi! Argle-bargle!" Do I exaggerate? Well, not much. By throwing in their lot with the sane Republicans, Democrats would almost assure that their position with base Republican voters would be weakened. It's tempting, isn't it?

The third and possibly most-attractive option is, to use a phrase from James Carville: "When your opponents are drowning, throw them an anchor!" Attack the Republican Party as a whole, leaning on the fact that they cannot get anything done, even among themselves. Position Democrats for the 2014 election by asking America: "Is this what you really want from your Congress? Vote these lunatics out!" Point out, in no uncertain terms, how shutting the government down to defund Obamacare (1) is never going to work, (2) is a gigantic waste of time and energy, (3) would hurt millions of Americans to score a meaningless political point, and (4) is nothing short of a temper tantrum worthy of a two-year-old child whose vocabulary seems to consist solely of the word "NO!"

Of course, there's a lot of overlap in these three options. All three could simultaneously be used by different Democrats, in fact. So far, Democrats have mostly been sitting on the sidelines, watching the Republican knife-fight with a bemused "I can't believe they're going to do this!" attitude. Democrats -- unlike all but the sanest of Republicans -- have already realized that when voting time rolls around in 2014, the Obamacare exchanges will be about to enter their second year. Short of some sort of apocalypse, many Americans are going to be wondering what all that Republican fuss was ever about in the first place. In fact, the only way it may even be a big issue in the campaign is if voters are still carrying the memory of that two-week shutdown of the government that Republicans forced on the country in 2013 -- and they won't be remembering that too fondly, I'd be willing to bet.

There will indeed be a battle royale in Congress over Obamacare next month. The Republican Party now cannot avoid it. Their base is demanding it. The only surprise is going to be the fact that the biggest fight isn't going to be with the Democrats, it's going to be a Republican-on-Republican donnybrook which is going to leave half the party absolutely enraged with the other half. It barely even matters what Democrats do -- this script is going to play out in any case. It's really hard to see any sort of downside for Democrats, and any sort of upside for Republicans -- even among the Tea Party base, who is now almost guaranteed to be disappointed with the outcome at the end of the day. To sum this up into one final amusing metaphor -- next month, there's a-gonna be a shootout in the Obamacare Corral. The only problem for Republicans is that they're lining up in a circle, and aiming at themselves.


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