Republican congressmen confront their own crazies

    It’s that time of year again, the August recess, when House members go home to meet up with regular people. And you have to feel sorry for the Republicans who are trying in vain to school their unhinged right-wing constituents about life in the real world.

    Ever since 2009, when the lies about “death panels” fouled the air, the August town halls have been filled with denizens of The Base, conservatives who can’t abide health care reform. The worst rebel without a clue was probably the woman who harangued Barney Frank for supporting such a “Nazi policy,” which was amusing, given Frank’s Jewish heritage. But now The Base has a new crusade. It’s demanding that all Republicans pledge to shut down the government, to hold it hostage this fall, unless President Obama agrees to defund Obamacare—and any Republican who refuses to endorse this tactic is to be tarred as a traitor or whatever.

    This week, a number of lawmakers have been hit with this litmus test during their town halls. They’ve tried to explain why the shutdown idea is unworkable, unrealistic, and just plain daft. But extremist citizens are generally impervious to logic and reason.

    A shock from Shock

    Take Illinois Congressman Aaron Shock’s town hall, for instance. Somebody in the crowd asked: “In five sentences or less, can we depend on you to vote against any budget bill that includes funding for the implementation of Obamacare?” The crowd clapped and said yay. Whereupon Shock proceeded to shock them, by trying talk sense to them.

    He pointed out that if Republicans crashed the government for a month or more, all kinds of people would suffer and, politically, the Republicans would get the blame: “I’m not convinced that after a month of the government being shut down—when our senior citizens aren’t getting Medicare-Medicaid-Social Security, that my position would be a sustainable position.”

    Somebody called out: “You risk alienating the people who brought you to power—the conservative voters who caused that [2010 midterm] landslide are going to react unless you take a strong principled position on this.”

    Somebody else called out: “Just get rid of Obamacare!”

    Shock retorted: “And how many weeks would you go without paying Social Security, and how many weeks would you go without paying the troops? And having a young lady walk into my office, whose husband is over in Afghanistan, who can’t pay her mortgage because I’m shutting the government down because I don’t like the health care law? … I’m just suggesting that when you get into a fight, politically, you gotta make sure you’re willing to kill the hostage you got. And I am not convinced yet that that’s a hostage we should take headed into this fight.”

    All told, he got nowhere. At one point, a woman called out, “That’s OK, kill it!”

    Out in Nebraska, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry had the same problem. He tried to tell his town hallers that a shutdown would have “very significant consequences” for the country, but somebody in the crowd simply said, “We elected Republicans to fight for more conservative policies!” (Note the terminology: “To fight,” not to govern.)

    Clueless in Carolina

    And down in North Carolina, Congressman Robert Pittenger may have had the worst tussle. A guy called out, “Real quick easy question—this is what the tea party wants to know—will you vote to defund Obamacare? Yes or no?” (Applause and yays.)

    Pittenger: “Do you want a thoughtful answer?”

    The guy didn’t want a thoughtful answer. “I want yes or no!”

    Pittenger: “No!”

    Then the real fun began. Another citizen decided to share his sage observations of the democratic process: “If you [House] guys, if every Republican votes against [funding Obamacare], it does not get funded. That is a fact.”

    Actually, this citizen had no idea what he was talking about.

    As Pittenger tried to explain, and as Shock tried to explain up in Illinois, a budget impasse and resulting government closure would not defund Obamacare. As the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service told GOP Senator Tom Coburn in an 11-page memo the other day, “It appears that substantial [health reform] implementation might continue”—because lots of the money was OK’d during the 2012 fiscal year, and because lots of other money was stockpiled from ‘multi-year’ discretionary funds, ‘in anticipation of a possible government shutdown.'”

    Pittenger also tried to explain to this clueless citizen that the House Republicans cannot simply dictate the size and shape of the federal budget because, in reality, there are other players in the game—like the Democratic Senate and the Democratic president.

    “No, sir,” said Pittenger. A budget “has to pass the Senate and get signed by the president of the United States. Do you think Harry Reid would pass that [a budget that tried to defund some of Obamacare]?”

    The guy’s reply: “It doesn’t matter.”

    It doesn’t matter … That succinctly sums up the mentality. Reality doesn’t matter. Governing doesn’t matter. Posturing is all that matters.

    And right after the guy replied, he was seconded by a woman in the crowd: “We need to show the American people that we stand for conservative values!”

    ‘Suicide caucus’

    Yep, it’s all about taking a “stand”—even though, as Pittenger tried to point out in a subsequent statement: “Most of Obamacare is in the law as mandatory spending, which continues during a shutdown. What would not continue would be pay for our brave soldiers, treatment for our veterans, and funding for critical services for our seniors. Voting for this sort of collateral damage is irresponsible.”

    Other Republicans are trying to talk sense to The Base (and to the tea-partying lawmakers who indulge The Base). For instance, Peter Wehner, a White House aide to the last three Republican presidents, says that the shutdown advocates are a “suicide caucus.” He mockingly writes: “Really, now? Conservatives should engage in a fight regardless of what the consequences are? Even if the consequences prove to be a setback in the efforts against the Affordable Care Act and, more broadly, the conservative cause? Even if in the real world Obamacare can’t be defunded and, in an effort to indulge that particular fantasy, significant political damage would be incurred by the failure?”

    But somehow the message is not getting through. As Paul Simon sang in “The Sounds of Silence” nearly half a century ago, it’s all about “people hearing without listening.”

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    Follow me in Twitter, @dickpolman1 

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