The Charge of the Defund Brigade
The failed Cruz-Lee-Heritage strategy may cost Republicans the Virginia governor's race.
Kimberley A. Strassel
Oct. 17, 2013 6:57 p.m. ET
"Forward the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!" he said. Into the Valley of Death, Rode the 600. –Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
On an October morning in the Crimea, 1854, British Lord Cardigan led his 600-strong cavalry force into a frontal assault of a fully dug-in and alerted Russian artillery battery. The charge was courageous. And it was suicidal.
The Light Brigade was ripped apart in the Valley of Death. Commenting on the bravery and utter futility of the attack, French Marshal Pierre Bosquet declared: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. C'est de la folie." ("It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is folly.")
The Republican Party is in a disorderly retreat from its own Valley of Death, having been led there by Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, flanked by drummers Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, Senate Conservatives Fund, and Club for Growth. Their cause was just, their charge courageous. And it was utterly suicidal. They were mowed down by a Democratic Party that was dug in, fully alerted and had every advantage.
Conservatives are now left to survey the carnage. And where to begin? The generals chose to turn their Defund ObamaCare operation into a litmus test of party purity, browbeating Republicans into issuing the one threat that Democrats understood was no threat at all: a government shutdown.
Mr. Obama and his team spent two weeks gleefully shelling Republicans for the government furloughs, the risk to the economy, their own confusion. The shutdown did unite one side: the Democratic Party, which hardened its resolve to do whatever necessary to protect the president's signature initiative.
The GOP's approval ratings tanked—to the lowest in Gallup history. (Didn't Heritage claim America supported this action?) Not long ago, Republicans were positioning themselves to employ a tough stance over the debt limit and the sequester to extract further budget concessions. By this week, weakened, divided, at risk of shouldering blame for default on top of the shutdown, they were forced to settle. They got little from this deal, save the right to do it all again. They were lucky Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got them that.
The defunders managed one thing: to turn the Republican Party upon itself. Millions of frustrated conservatives who were told this fight was winnable are now furious at Republicans for not doing the impossible. This fury risks undermining what is in fact the GOP's best shot at taking down ObamaCare: winning next year's midterm elections.
There's more. The GOP's bright spot in recent years has been its dominance of reform governors in state capitals. Yet in Virginia, the blowback from furloughs of local workers has landed on conservative gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, dragging him down in his fight against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. He's also getting crushed by negative ads. The left, which understands the stakes in Virginia, has spent an estimated $7.5 million more on the race than the right.
By contrast, many of those outside groups (like Heritage) supposedly devoted to the cause of electing real conservatives (like Mr. Cuccinelli ) have been blowing their money attacking fellow Republicans (like Mr. McConnell ) over defund, rather than playing for keeps in states (like Virginia) that will play crucial roles in upcoming federal elections. Democrats are, as a result, well poised in a few weeks to seize back Virginia—giving them another gloating point.
Finally, there is the opportunity cost. Had the militants chosen to hold back, to wait, as it were, for PR reinforcement, what might the GOP have won? The rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges has been a failure. Not "glitchy." Not "troubled." Failure. Had the GOP not been mired in shutdown headlines, had it spent 24/7 highlighting the enrollment disasters, the flood of premium hikes and canceled policies, the layoffs and cut hours, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius might at this moment be facing forced resignation. The GOP might be issuing its own terms for some form of ObamaCare surrender.
The Americans who supported the defund mission did so for the right reasons. They are correct that the law is a disaster, and that GOP leadership lacked a coherent plan to counter it this summer. They are correct that the House has every "right" to control the purse. They are correct that the party is too often rudderless, that it has lacked a vision, that it needs some bold figures willing to define a modern (which doesn't mean populist) conservatism.
But none of that changes the fact that Defund ObamaCare was the wrong fight, at the wrong time, facing impossible odds, and conducted by generals who lacked an endgame. Being right isn't always enough.
History is full of brave men who are famous mostly for losing. Republicans will have more shots to cut down ObamaCare, and pry out budget concessions. But to win those fights, they'll have to learn from this one. Brave charges mean little if they aren't followed by victory.