Matching opinion pieces from Eric Cantor in The Washington Post and Paul Ryan in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday make one thing crystal clear: The reason the government has been shut down for nine days is because Republicans wanted a fight. What that fight was over? Depends on the day.
As we've pointed out, the progression of demands from Republicans prior to passage of a comprehensive government funding bill in the House went like this: Fund government at sequestration levels, plus:
- Defund Obamacare
- Delay the law, repeal an Obamacare-related tax, and end mandatory contraception subsidies
- Delay the individual mandate in Obamacare, and end health care subsidies for legislators
- Delay the individual mandate in Obamacare, end health care subsidies for legislators, and then discuss other reforms
You'll notice a theme! It is a theme that has sort of bobbed along on the surface of the debate over the past nine days, sometimes appearing, usually out of sight. On Tuesday, it got one mention during a Republican press conference about the shutdown from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, alongside a call for cutting spending on Medicare and other social safety net programs.
In an opinion piece titled "Here's How We Can End This Stalemate" in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin mentions Obamacare precisely zero times — which some conservatives noticed. Sen. Ted Cruz's speechwriter:
There is one big word missing from this op-ed. It's start with an O and ends with BAMACARE http://t.co/r1cYgjWEL5— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) October 9, 2013
(It appears that Ryan may have gotten the message.)
Ryan's editorial is largely rhetorical — which, of course — treading carefully along lines heavily tested. Sitting down to negotiate with President Obama isn't aimed at achieving a "grand bargain," Ryan writes, knowing that the idea is anathema to his congressional peers. Part of the reason he doesn't mention Obamacare is almost certainly that the public overwhelmingly opposes shutting down the government to block the health care law. That polling data existed before the shutdown began, but opinion has been consistent in opposing the Cruz-conservative anti-Obamacare position since.
Ryan's op-ed doesn't even mention a key anti-Obamacare talking point from the 2012 campaign. During his much-pilloried acceptance speech, he railed against a change in Medicare funding that was part of Obamacare — a change that didn't affect patients and which he himself had previously proposed, but which he used as part of the ticket's case against the health care legislation. In his Journal piece, Ryan says that in 2011, "I offered ideas to reform Medicare," suggesting he's moved a full 180 degrees on this. Again.
Why is Ryan's avoidance of Obamacare significant? As The National Review's Robert Costa pointed out last week, Ryan is seen as the Republican's guy-in-the-ring on budget negotiations. If and when the House and White House sit down to figure out a deal on the budget, Ryan will be there. And it seems unlikely that an Obamacare rollback is going to be at the top of his agenda.
Then there's Cantor's essay in the Post. It is only tangential to the points Ryan makes, and begins:
For three years, Congress and the White House have been building to this moment. Not the debt limit or Obamacare specifically, but this clarifying moment of Washington dysfunction. President Obama has led us here by continually thwarting the will of Congress and dismissing its role in our constitutional republic. This must end.
This fight isn't about Obamacare, he argues, not really. It is about Obama dissing Congress. This fits neatly with the Republicans' new line of political attack, their third, leveraging Obama's stated opposition to negotiating with Republicans under threat of an ongoing shutdown or debt default. (The second line of attack, still ongoing, is the partial re-funding of various government programs. Here's why that one is stumbling.) Obama points out, as he did in a press conference on Tuesday, that Democrats tried multiple times to go into conference with Republicans when those threats weren't in play, and were rejected.
It's almost certain that this fight was not actually supposed to be about Obamacare. House Speaker John Boehner never wanted that to be the fight, but it's also clear that he was never averse to the fight. Our colleagues at The Atlantic noted on Monday that Republican leadership isn't clear what they want to get out of the shutdown. We'd argue they've already gotten what they wanted: a fight.