Eugene Robinson: Obama must call GOP's bluff — even if it isn't a bluff
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are like a bunch of 3-year-olds playing with matches. Their hapless leaders don't have the sense to scold them and send them to their rooms — which means President Barack Obama has to be the disciplinarian in this dysfunctional family.
Mature adults in the GOP should have explained reality to these tantrum-throwing tykes long ago: It simply is not within their constitutional power to make Obamacare go away. They can scream at the top of their lungs, roll around on the floor, hold their breath until they turn blue, waste everybody's time with 41 useless votes — whatever. All they can really do is hurt themselves or others.
Yet, here we are, with Speaker John Boehner cowed into letting his members threaten to shut down the government unless they are allowed to stay up all night watching television and eating candy. Also, unless the Senate and Obama agree to nullify health-care reform before it fully takes effect.
I happen to believe that Obamacare is a great accomplishment, providing access to medical insurance to millions of Americans who lack it and bringing the nation much closer to universal health care. It's an imperfect law, to be sure, but it could be made much better with the kind of constructive tinkering that responsible leaders performed on Social Security and Medicare.
Even if Obamacare were tremendously flawed, however, it would be wrong to let a bunch of extremist ideologues hold the country hostage in this manner. If Republicans want to repeal the reforms, they should win the Senate and the presidency. If not, they're welcome to pout and sulk all they want — but not to use extortion to get their way.
At issue is not just the threat of a federal shutdown, which will happen Oct. 1 unless Congress passes a continuing resolution to fund government operations. The debt ceiling has to be raised before the Treasury hits its borrowing limit, which will happen around Oct. 18.
If House Republicans don't kill or neutralize Obamacare with the funding bill, they are ready to threaten the nation — and the global economy — with a potentially catastrophic default.
The proper response — really, the only response — is to say no. And mean it.
Obama is by nature a reasonable and flexible man, but this time, he must not yield. Even if you leave aside what delaying or defunding Obamacare would mean for his legacy — erasing his most significant domestic accomplishment — it would be irresponsible for him to bow to the GOP zealots' demands.
The practical impact of acquiescing would be huge. Individuals who have been uninsured are anticipating access to adequate care. State governments, insurance companies and health-care providers have spent vast amounts of time and money preparing for the law to take effect.
To suddenly say "never mind" would be unbelievably reckless. The political implication of compromising with blackmailers would be an unthinkable surrender of presidential authority. The next time he said "I will do this" or "I will not do that," why should Congress or the American people take him seriously? How could that possibly enhance Obama's image on the world stage?
Obama has said he will not accept a budget deal that cripples Obamacare and will never negotiate on the debt ceiling. Even if the Republicans carry through with their threats — and this may happen — the president has no option but to stand his ground. You don't deal with bullies by making a deal to keep the peace. That only rewards and encourages them. You have to push back.
The thing is, this showdown is a sure political loser for the GOP — and smart Republicans know it. Boehner doesn't want this fight, and in fact, should be grateful if Obama hangs tough and shows the crazies the limits of their power.
Republicans in the Senate don't want this fight. It's doubtful that even a majority of House Republicans really, truly want this fight, no matter what they say publicly.
But irresponsible demagogues — I mean you, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — have whipped the GOP base into a frenzy of unrealistic expectations. House members who balk at jumping off the cliff risk being labeled "moderate," which is the very worst thing you can call a Republican — and the most likely thing to shorten his or her political career.
The way to end this madness is by firmly saying no. If Boehner won't do it, Obama must.
Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post.