Frank Rich on the National Circus: GOP Can’t Impeach Obama, Closes Government Instead

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Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: The GOP shuts down the government over Obamacare, Senator Ted Cruz tries to become House Speaker, and NBC and CNN both scrap their Hillary projects.

The federal government shut down yesterday after House Republicans refused to pass any budget that didn't defund Obamacare. The president's signature domestic initiative passed by the skin of its teeth in 2010 and survived both a Supreme Court challenge and a national election in 2012. Are you surprised the GOP is staking so much on a fight it has already lost three times?
Not at all. Let’s be clear what this is about: the refusal of a defeated political party to accept the legitimacy of the democratic process when it didn’t get its way. The focus on Obamacare as a means to delegitimize a twice-elected president is just the latest pretext after previous pretexts failed, from the president’s supposedly fake birth certificate to the “Fast and Furious” scandal to Benghazi and all the other would-be impeachable offenses investigated by the House’s Inspector Clouseau, Representative Darrell Issa of California. Think of the Obamacare-driven shutdown as parallel to the Monica Lewinsky–driven impeachment of Bill Clinton: a handy — though ultimately backfiring — vehicle for an attempted right-wing coup against a Democratic president. If the GOP’s real aim was to get government out of Americans’ medical care, it would be resuming its campaign to “reform” (e.g., gradually defund) Medicare, for starters. But you don’t hear anything about that anymore now that the party realizes that its base loves Medicare — so much so that tea-partiers carried signs saying “Keep Government Out of My Medicare!” in ignorance of the fact that it is a program of the government they loathe. So Obamacare is the chosen weapon instead. Unfortunately for the Republicans, it is going to detonate in their own caucus.

Texas senator Ted Cruz delivered a 21-hour anti-Obamacare speech last week and reportedly is now issuing marching order to the House GOP's hardline caucus. Is becoming the face of the shutdown a good gamble for Cruz?
Only if he labors under the belief he can be elected president with a group of deep-red states that are guaranteed to go Republican no matter who is on the ticket — and need no independent voters or purple swing states. For contrast, I direct you once again to the shrewdest politician in the GOP’s 2016 field, Rand Paul. Though he is second to no one in opposing Obamacare, he stays clear of vilifying Obama and endorsing a government shutdown, has been largely quiet during this whole drama, and has come out in favor of a clean House resolution to keep the government running. He knows Cruz is on a kamikaze mission.

What will end the shutdown?
Not public opinion. New polls show that, despite Americans’ divided-to-negative views about Obamacare itself, more than 70 percent of the public opposes the GOP’s use of a shutdown as a tactic to defund the law. But the GOP radicals won’t be swayed by those numbers. If they didn’t care when such Establishment authorities as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, John McCain, and Karl Rove told them repeatedly to cool it, why should they give a damn about voters? (After all, the voters in their own safe, gerrymandered districts do agree with the shutdown tactic.) Realizing that these revolutionaries can’t be moved, the conservative Establishment is now hoping that blaming the shutdown on Obama and the Democrats will somehow make the president blink instead. So you see this tactic at play in stunts like John Boehner and Eric Cantor assailing the Democrats for refusing to “negotiate” with their party’s bomb-throwers, and the Journal’s latest opinion-page jeremiads, which are trying to rebrand the chaos as (depending on the day) “An Obama-Cruz Shutdown” or, more desperately, as “The President’s Shutdown.” That’s not going to work either. Dick Armey, a prominent player in the Newt Gingrich leadership team at the helm of the last shutdown, got it exactly right when he said several years later that he had argued against a shutdown at that time: “Newt’s position was presidents get blamed for shutdowns, and he cited Ronald Reagan. My position was Republicans get blamed for shutdowns. I argued that it is counterintuitive to the average American to think that the Democrat wants to shut down the government. They’re the advocates of the government. It is perfectly logical to them that Republicans would shut it down, because we’re seen as antithetical to government. I said if there’s a shutdown, we’re going to get the blame.”

So, what will change the equation? Paul Ryan got it half-right when he said yesterday that the battle on tap two weeks from now, over the debt limit, will be “the forcing mechanism to bring the two parties together.” But the parties won’t come together then — the Republicans will have to retreat. The moment the radicals seriously threaten to push America into default and toss our economy and the world’s into an uncharted cataclysm, Wall Street, which still writes far more checks for the GOP than the outside right-wing groups supporting the shutdown, will pull the plug on the revolution.

In August, RNC chairman Reince Priebus demanded that NBC and CNN cancel their proposed mini-series and documentary projects on Hillary Clinton. On Monday, both NBC and CNN announced they were scrapping their Clinton projects. Cause and effect?
No. As I wrote back then, Reince Priebus and the various right-wing bloggers who joined with him in assuming that these projects would be valentines to Clinton were idiotic. The NBC mini-series, like the rest of that network’s hapless entertainment programming, was provisional at best — an embryonic development deal with only one prominent name attached (the actress Diane Lane) and unlikely to bear fruit (like most development deals). Meanwhile, the CNN documentary had been assigned to Charles Ferguson, the high-powered creator of the toughest film about Wall Street and the financial crisis, the Oscar-winning Inside Job. If Priebus had the Internet savvy to use Google — and it remains unclear what, if any, basic digital know-how resides at the GOP — he would have figured out in a nanosecond that Ferguson was far more likely to be a Clinton critic than hagiographer. And that has proved to be the case. Ferguson’s account of why he dropped the CNN assignment is worth reading in full at the Huffington Post. It wasn’t pressure from CNN — or the GOP via CNN — that made him quit the film but the full press of Clinton apparatchiks to limit access and create roadblocks as he pursued the story journalistically. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Clinton camp is doing everything possible to snuff out all manner of journalistic investigation in anticipation of a possible 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. What they don’t realize — and you’d think they’d have learned this lesson by now — is that the more they look as if they have embarrassments they want to hide, the harder the press will go looking for them. Their successful derailment of Ferguson’s documentary is a pyrrhic victory at best.