Several Republicans, most prominently a few 2016 presidential candidates, are threatening to shutdown the federal government unless President Obama agrees to defund Obamacare. But Obama would never sign a bill to defund Obamacare. And Republicans know it. But they have to pretend they don't know it — or that they just have a better way to do it — for the sake of conservative activists who are in denial about it.

The choreographed defund-or-shutdown fight is happening both publicly and behind closed doors. "A shutdown? It’s not happening, it’s really not, but I guess you won’t hear people say that out loud, including me," a senior House Republican tells The National Review's Robert Costa. "No one, you see, wants to be 'out-toughed' on Obamacare. We’re out here talking about repeal everyday. But the speaker and everybody else here know that the Senate votes, unfortunately, will never be there to pass a continuing resolution to defund Obamacare." So House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are doing "a wink-wink kabuki dance of the highest order," Costa writes, to avoid alienating conservative lawmakers without giving them power over fiscal negotiations. 

Before Congress left for August recess, Boehner told House Republicans in a closed-door meeting that "the best shot" to kill Obamacare was with votes attacking smaller parts of the bill like the individual mandate. A GOP leadership aide tells Costa that "no one seems to able to explain how we win a shutdown fight." They don't want to use the debt limit to try to force Obama to defund Obamacare, either.

During the recess, some Republicans have been pretty open in opposing defund-or-shutdown, even in the face of angry constituents. At a town hall for Rep. Robert Pittenger, a North Carolina Republican, there was this exchange, taped by the Tea Party website ConstitutionalWar.org:

Audience member: "Will you vote... to defund Obamacare? Yes or no?"
Crowd: [Cheers]
Pittenger: "Do you want the thoughtful answer?"
Audience member: "I want 'yes' or 'no.'"
Pittenger: "No."

Cantor, plus Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, have publicly indicated they don't support the strategy, as did several other Republicans before the recess.

Even so, a Republican Senate aide tells The National Review's Andrew Stiles that he's confident there will be another vote to defund Obamacare. "This is TARP for 2014," the aide explains. "This is what determines whether or not you get a primary challenge." Many conservative groups, like FreedomWorks and Club for Growth, are demanding a shutdown unless Obamacare's defunded, and calling on activists to call members of Congress who've indicated they won't support the defund-or-shutdown campaign. But Costa reports the focus will be more on a series of votes to delay the employer mandate and the individual mandate. Cantor met with conservative leaders to relay Boehner's strategy; they were disappointed, Costa reports, "But there was no uproar."

That is not yet true of conservative voters. When pressed that if every Republican agreed, they could defund Obamacare, Pittenger responds, "No sir, it has to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president of the United States... Do you think Harry Reid is gonna pass that in the Senate?" The crowd denies this fundamental constitutional fact: "It doesn't matter!" As Roll Call's Emma Dumain notes, several other Republicans have struggled to explain this to their constituents. "I believe the president wants us to shut it down. … I think he’ll literally come at us," Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf said at a Leesburg rotary club. Rep. Tom Cole spent three hours trying to explain it to a town hall. A Cole constituent understood how bills become law better than Pittenger's, but said she still wanted a defunding vote. "It comes across as patronizing, that we don't understand that this one vote is not going to get rid of Obamacare. I understand that." But she wants to "draw a line in the sand."