The GOP can win the Obamacare shutdown standoff — by standing strong.
Despite what many inside the Beltway think, Republicans hold a strong hand, strong enough to make a policy victory quite plausible.
Of course, in the event a handful of nervous House Republicans emulate the English army at the Battle of Hastings and break ranks on the cusp of victory, the GOP will suffer a tragic rout that would be not only disastrous, but unnecessary.
News reports suggest a handful of "moderate" House Republicans, fearful that the current budgetary standoff will hurt them politically, are tempted to desert Speaker John A. Boehner and side with Democrats to push through a "clean" continuing resolution. A clean measure would fund the entire government for a few months, minus a provision to delay Obamacare for a year. The health care law takes full effect on Jan. 1. To date, the House has approved the delay twice.
Obamacare is the key to victory for both sides in the standoff. It is what's keeping parts of the government shuttered. Strike a deal on it, and the government will reopen.
What do Republicans need? A halt to the Washington health care takeover. What do Democrats need? More spending for their constituencies, who are chafing under the current, sequestration levels. The obstacle? Democrats won't hear of changing Obamacare. It needs no fixes, they protest. It's the law of the land.
The outlines of a deal are clear: Republicans agree to a bit more spending, Democrats to a temporary Obamacare delay. This deal is doable, if Republicans stand firm, for three reasons:
1. Obamacare is unpopular. After more than four years of national debate, the health law has failed to win popular support. The law's harmful effects on job creation and work hours and its upward pressure on health insurance premiums have disappointed its supporters. Its shockingly unfair implementation, with disgusting exemptions for large employers and members of Congress, and its embarrassingly glitch-laden rollout, are turning centrists off.
Of the hundreds of polls taken since March 2010, none has found more than 45 percent of Americans in favor (the current figure is 40 percent), while none has found fewer than 45 percent opposed (it's now 50 percent, according to the comprehensive Real Clear Politics average of polls). The sweet spot in public opinion is "fixing" Obamacare by "eliminating its worst parts." That's what the majority of Americans actually want. The individual mandate, which three-quarters of the public opposes, is clearly the law's worst part. By modestly proposing to delay that unpopular mandate for one year, Republicans have squarely occupied that critical central ground. Already, 22 House Democrats and one Senate Democrat (Joe Manchin III of West Virginia) have come out for the idea. More will join them, if Republicans continue their mini-bill strategy.
2. The mini-bills strategy is sustainable. With the government's purse strings lodged by the Constitution in the House of Representatives, Republicans, who control the House, can control how the government reopens. They have already started doing so, moving "mini-bills" to reopen the most popular parts of the government. Democrats agreed to the first one, to exempt military paychecks from the shutdown, unanimously. But realizing their error, they now say they'll block everything, no matter how popular, until they get a clean continuing resolution to fund everything else. That makes them the extreme obstructionists and puts them on the defensive. If Republicans hold, Democrats will crack.
3. Default isn't a real threat. The left has one, last hope: default. They have seized on the idea that the threat of an economically damaging debt default will force the House to relent. Experts say the statutory debt ceiling will be reached sometime in mid- to late October. With that in mind, Mr. Obama and his Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, have taken to trying to spook the stock market with loose talk of "default" unless Republicans relent. Fear of "default," they hope, will enable them to split the GOP and sweep the field.
Problem: There is no chance of default. Or rather, only Mr. Obama can make a default on the debt happen. It's a matter of cash flow. There is far more than enough tax revenue coming in daily to cover all of Uncle Sam's obligations to its creditors. There's also enough to cover all the checks for seniors and the troops. To be sure, if we hit the debt ceiling, the president will have to postpone some payments, such as to defense contractors, state governments or individuals. He would have to prioritize.
Democrats misleadingly call that "default," but it's not the kind of default markets really care about. Governments miss those kinds of payments all the time.
Could Mr. Obama claim it would be illegal for him to prioritize? He could. But as we've seen repeatedly, he's never let the law stop him before. He has vowed never to let a default happen. Ergo, he will prioritize.
Republicans can win, if they stand strong.
Dean Clancy, a former senior White House budget official (2004-06), is vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks.