Peter Wehner: Conservatives and the Quest for Political Purification

By Peter Wehner

For some conservatives, using the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act is an issue with which they have honest differences with other conservatives. For others on the right, however, the “principled” and “patriotic” Republicans support the effort to defund ObamaCare while “pseudo-conservatives”—the spineless, craven, and cowardly types—oppose the effort.

For this group, which includes prominent lawmakers such as Senator Ted Cruz, the defunding strategy has become a litmus test, a true “red line,” a historic moment in which the right-wing wheat and the RINO chaff are once and for all separated. To find a comparable moment in history, think of William Barret Travis at the Alamo (played by Mr. Cruz) and Henry V at Agincourt (played by Senator Rand Paul). “We few, we happy few, we band of Tea Party brothers.”

What a shame all this melodrama is a mirage, a farce, a game.

The choice is not, and never has been, between those willing to defund ObamaCare and those willing to fund it. That supposed choice is in fact an illusion. To defund the ACA would require the House and Senate to pass new legislation, which Barack Obama would have to sign. And no one, not even Senators Cruz, Paul, Lee and Rubio, believes the president would do that.

All the posturing that’s being done to present this as a battle between Intrepid Republicans versus the Surrender Caucus is nothing more than political theater.

It also appears that Captain Courageous himself, Ted Cruz, and some of his colleagues are now engaging—at least for now—in a premature surrender. House Republicans are incensed at Cruz for going wobbly on the filibuster he once seemed to favor, putting all the responsibility back on the House.

“For weeks, House Republicans have said the prospects of passing a defund bill in the Senate are grim, and Senators Lee, Cruz, and Rubio have responded by saying nothing is impossible if we fight hard enough. Now they are getting exactly what they asked for, and they issue a press release conceding defeat and refusing to join the fight they demanded in every TV appearance. It’s time they put their money where their mouths are, and do something other than talk,” a House GOP leadership aide told National Review. And Representative Sean Duffy took to Twitter, saying, “House agrees to send ‪#CR to Senate that defunds Obamacare. ‪@SenTedCruz & ‪@SenMikeLee refuse to fight. Wave white flag and surrender.”

There will be plenty of twists and turns ahead, so we’ll have to see how this all plays out. (Mr. Cruz may have to move forward on a filibuster just to save face.) But it does raise the question: How did this silly idea become all the rage?

For some the answer has to do with pent up fury in need of an outlet, and the effort to defund the ACA is that outlet. It also appeals to those who find it satisfying to turn every debate into an apocalyptic clash. And even if Republicans fail, at least they “fought the good fight.” (Ronald Reagan referred to people of this mindset as those who enjoyed “going off the cliff with all flags flying.”)

But there’s also a tendency among some on the right—not all, certainly, but some—to go in search of heretics. They seek to purify the conservative movement—to eliminate from it the defilement, the debasement, and the corruption they see all around them—and they bring to this task an almost religious zeal. They are the Keepers of the Tablets. And they are in a near constant state of agitation. Living in an imperfect world while demanding perfection (or your version of perfection) from others can be hard.

This is not conservatism either in terms of disposition or governing philosophy. It is, rather, the product of intemperate minds and fairly radical (and thoroughly unconservative) tendencies. Such things have always been with us; and some of the uncontained passions and anger will eventually burn out. The question is how much damage will be done in the process.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Previously he worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. In the last of which, he served as deputy assistant to the president.

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