Let me make sure I understand. The tea party Republicans in the House and Senate have determined that the Affordable Care Act is so reprehensible, so pernicious, and so destructive of American liberties that it poses an existential risk to the republic.
That’s the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from their most recent – and now disturbingly familiar – round of legislative warfare, which has now ended in a government shutdown. Why? Because tea party Republicans have been wielding nearly every existential weapon in their arsenal to blast the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) into legislative oblivion.
Shutting down the government. Threatening the full faith and credit of the United States. Anything it takes to force congressional Democrats and President Obama into white flag waving submission. Clearly for them, a law like this must be stopped at all costs. If it cannot be defeated initially, it must be stopped judicially. If the Supreme Court upholds it, Congress must repeal, derail, or defund it. This is not just a bad law – it is an evil one.
The problem is, it isn’t.
Certainly not to the majority of Democrats. And not for common-sense Republicans like me.
Common-sense Republicans understand that a law that forces Americans to opt in and pay for health-care insurance or opt out and pay a federal tax might simply be a bad law. It might skew market forces, misalign our national spending priorities, and even dress up an unconstitutional encroachment on our individual liberties in the guise of a federal tax. For common sense Republicans, none of this is good, and some of it is very bad.
But it’s not an existential threat that deserves an existential response.
Freedom of religion, speech, the press. The right to vote, to bear arms, to assemble. These are fundamental to our republic. While reasonable people might disagree over the expression, implementation, and restriction of these freedoms, no one who shares our constitutional values can disagree with their existence. If these freedoms are taken away – not simply re-scoped or modified by representatives who, by the way, are popularly elected – we would have an existential crisis.
That would be a crisis that would merit shutting the government down and refusing to raise the debt ceiling. That would deserve an existential response. But not this.
By pretending that the Affordable Care Act poses such an existential risk to the republic that it merits dragging our national character through the mud of shutdown and the threat of default, tea party Republicans are belittling the very real crises America soon may face.
We have a blossoming federal debt that could one day cripple our nation. Some tea party Republicans clearly want to repeat last year’s debt ceiling debacle. But refusing to raise the debt ceiling to permit borrowing for money already spent is like refusing to pay your bills at the end of the month. It might keep money in the bank temporarily, but it’s not a responsible solution for decades of overspending by both parties.
We have an economy that provides too few job opportunities for those who want to work and too much income inequality between those at the bottom and the top. Regardless of your position on free market economics, neither of these facts is good for anyone in America.
We have struggling schools, overcrowded prisons, ballooning student debts, and, yes, high health-care costs with limited health-care coverage. The solutions to each of these problems are neither universally obvious nor universally appealing. But they do not deserve a slash-and-burn approach to legislating that refuses to see reason in opposing viewpoints and condemns as a wrongdoer anyone who disagrees.
We live in a democratic republic. The people elect legislators who pass legislation and a president who signs it into law. By its very nature, there are winners and losers. Sometimes one party wins and gets the legislation it wants. Sometimes not. But most of the time we compromise. We get a little here and give a little there. We work together. I can tell you as the father of five children, this is a life lesson every four-year-old has to learn.
Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that tea party Republicans – caught in the fog of war and self-appointed last stands – seem to have forgotten.
So as a common-sense Republican who opposes the Affordable Care Act but even more strongly opposes the Pyrrhic tactics of the tea party Republicans, let me offer this reminder.
The Affordable Care Act is not European style health care. It does not prevent doctors from gaining the rewards of their hard work. It does not stop me from seeing my family doctor or force me to wait in government lines for aspirin. Like most government programs, it prioritizes policies in ways that benefit some people and hurt others. And, though time will tell, it very likely is an incomplete, overly expensive, and misguided step toward ensuring that all Americans have at least basic access to healthcare. But it is not an existential crisis.
The existential crisis is the one that tea party Republicans are creating. This crisis is abusing the give-and-take of the political process to such a degree that both our national pride and credit are at risk in the world. It is creating such a rift in the Republican Party that we have to spend more time defending rather than celebrating Republican ideals.
If tea party Republicans want to avoid an existential threat to the republic, they should remember that their first loyalty is not to defeating the Affordable Care Act or winning the next election. Their first loyalty is to the republic.
They should remember what Benjamin Franklin said when asked what form of government the Founders gave us: A republic, if we can keep it.
Justin Holbrook is a graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School. He has deployed twice as an active-duty Air Force judge advocate, directed a clinic for disabled veterans as an associate professor of law at Widener Law School in Wilmington, Delaware, and worked as a congressional aide for Congressman Ernest Istook (R) of Oklahoma. He currently practices law in Virginia.