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Tea Party to Republicans: Shut Down the Government, or You're a Sellout

The Tea Party movement got its start in February, 2009, when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and went on a rant about government bailouts. But the movement didn’t really establish itself as a political force until that August, when conservative activists confronted Democratic lawmakers at town hall meetings across the country, in order to denounce health care reform.

Four years later, it looks like conservative rabble-rousers are at it again—only this time, they’re not going after Democrats who believe in Obamacare. They’re going after Republicans who won’t shut down the government in order to block Obamacare’s funding.

ThinkProgress has posted videos of three such meetings. In one, which you can see in the clip below, a constituent asks Republican Congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois whether he is willing “to vote against any funding bill that includes funding for Obamacare.” The question draws strong applause from the audience. Schock says he shares the frustration with Obamacare, calling it “an extremely flawed bill” and supporting repeal. But shutting down the government, Schock goes on to explain, would be an extreme step—one that would have harsh consequences for average Americans. “If you’re going to take a hostage," Schock says, "you gotta be willing to shoot it.” Another attendee quickly quipped, “kill it.”

If you remember those raucous meetings from 2009, you’ll notice that these more recent exchanges aren't nearly as rowdy or hostile. And it's entirely possible health care won't garner much attention at other meetings, given all of the other topics (like immigration) for voters to discuss. But the tension between the base and party leaders over Obamacare is very real. Groups like FreedomWorks and Heritage Action are demanding Republicans refuse to authorize spending bills that don’t eliminate Obamacare funding. So are some high-profile Republican lawmakers, chief among them Senators Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. And it’s not making GOP leaders happy, for obvious reasons.  

A series of new polls confirm that most voters disapprove of Obamacare, much to the chagrin of the law’s supporters. But a chunk of those voters aren’t happy because the law isn’t generous or expansive enough. They’d like to strengthen it, not eliminate it. When pollsters ask people whether they support repealing the law outright, majorities usually say no, particularly if it means allowing insurers to continue practices like denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. As for shutting down the government over Obamacare, even a poll sponsored by a Tea Party group suggested voters would hold Republicans, not Democrats, responsible if it came to that.

None of this should be surprising. Public opinion on Obamacare actually hasn’t shifted a whole lot since it became law. And while Democrats struggled to articulate a defense for the law in 2010, when they were basically justifying their votes, they seemed to have an easier time in 2012, when they could play off Republican proposals that would strip away parts of the law voters liked. (Greg Sargent has been following the polling, and adds some analysis from public opinion experts here.) The politics of the law could change, of course. But nothing in recent history suggests it will.

A few Republicans have denounced the shutdown push: It’s “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina said recently, echoing what several of his colleagues had already said publicly and many more had said privately. But Republican leaders, the ones in ostensibly charge of their caucuses in the House and Senate, are treading more carefully—because they know they could be the next victims of Obamacare blowback.

Look no further than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell has never said a kind word about Obamacare, famously united his Republican caucus around opposition to it, and has called for its repeal as loudly as anybody. But he hasn’t committed to the defunding strategy—and he’s getting all kinds of grief over it. It’s coming from his more conservative colleagues and it’s coming from his more conservative primary challenger, Matt Bevin. At a recent town hall meeting, Bevin challenged McConnell to take a position, saying “be a man.” 

McConnell has only himself to blame for his predicament. Like other Republicans, he happily stoked anti-Obamacare sentiment on the right, knowing that it would produce both intense support and donations. But now, to borrow Steve Benen’s phrasing, that movement has turned into a Frankenstein monster leaders can’t control. It’s enough to make an Obamacare supporter who remembers August 2009—say, somebody like me—feel a little schadenfreude. But there’s no joy in contemplating another government shutdown, or the possibility that one of our major parties is under the control of extremists. 

Health care reform will survive this August, just like it did four years ago. But the prospects for a functional government may take yet another hit.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn