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In Government Shutdown, House Conservatives Abandon Their Principles

10/07/2013 09:07 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

As many leading Republicans recognize, their party's forcing a government shutdown is bad politics. They complain that the congressional faction preventing a vote to reopen the government is hurting the GOP by a quixotic attempt to delay -- and, ultimately, derail -- Obamacare. They point out that those trying to coerce Democrats to accept critical changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) don't have an end-game plan to avoid a costly defeat and lack a positive message, offering only opposition and obstruction.

What the Republican elders understand -- and Senator Ted Cruz and his allies in the House evidently do not -- is that good politics is both principled and effective. The basic problem with making the U.S. government itself a bargaining chip in a policy fight is that it is not principled and, hence, cannot be effective.

If the congressional Republicans driving this scorched-earth crusade against Obamacare see themselves as defending "conservative principles," they are deceiving themselves. In fact, in engaging in pure power politics, these conservatives have abandoned their principles for political extortion in trying to achieve partisan goals.

To be sure, many people do honestly object to the ACA on conservative principles relating to the proper and improper uses of government power, particularly when it limits individual freedom by compelling certain actions, such as paying taxes or buying health insurance.

Under the banner of those principles, conservative opponents of Obamacare tried to prevent the ACA from becoming law, challenged it in the courts, and made it a central issue in the 2012 presidential election. On all three fronts, they lost. They took their stands and made their arguments, which reflected the views of millions of Americans. Even people who disagreed with them could respect their positions as legitimate expressions of a conservative philosophy that plays a vital role in American politics.

When a minority of House Republicans, encouraged by Senator Cruz, decided to pressure Speaker John Boehner not to permit a vote on a continuing resolution to fund government operations, they apparently failed to grasp the hypocrisy of such a move. It's fair to say that, in politics, no one surpasses conservatives in their professed devotion to "principles," lauding heroes like Ronald Reagan as champions of conservative values. Indeed, Reagan's effectiveness as a president was due in part to voters' perception of him as a principled politician. But when a small group of legislators, after having failed to obtain their political objectives by persuasion, resorts to a naked power play, they have rejected principles and embraced the immoral stance that the ends justify the means. Indeed, they admit as much when they portray the ACA as posing so serious a threat to the country that the goal of impeding its implementation justifies even bringing the nation's government to a halt.

In a modern democracy, when a political faction come to believe that their cause is so important and so righteous that it justifies whatever means they can use to further it, they betray the fundamental values on which self-government depends. Most notably, they reject the founding fathers' conviction that our laws should be forged through principled debate, deal-making, and compromise, just as the Constitution itself was.

Of course, in political negotiations, "hardball" tactics aren't unusual, as politicians and their supporters sometimes apply coercive pressure on other legislators and policy-makers. But, when the votes are taken and you lose, the political process offers you several options. You can try to persuade colleagues that the "bad" law should be repealed, you can challenge it in the courts, or you can "take it to the voters" in elections. But if, having exhausted those alternatives, in trying to salvage a political victory you maneuver to suspend the operations of the government of which you were elected trustees, then morally you have lost the authority that comes from steadfast commitment to democratic principles. In other words, you have lost the moral authority necessary for effective political leadership.

Conservatives talk a lot about the importance of their principles. It is sadly ironic, then, that the conservatives in Congress who shut down the government thereby turned away from principles and persuasion to a purely Machiavellian exercise of brute force. In a democracy, such a course is not just imprudent politics -- as senior Republicans lament -- it is an abdication of political principles altogether.