Congress is going on recess at the end of this week, and they'll be doing it without a bill to address the large number of Central American children showing up at the southern border—John Boehner couldn't even come up with a bill that would pass his house after Ted Cruz convinced House conservatives to oppose it. On that issue, on the Affordable Care Act, and on other issues as well, we may be seeing the rise of a particular strategy on the right—sometimes gripping part of the GOP, and sometimes all of it—that can be traced back to that noted conservative Vladimir Lenin. I speak of "heightening the contradictions," the idea that you have to intentionally make conditions even more miserable than they are, so the people rise up and cast off the illegitimate rulers and replace them with you and your allies. Then the work of building a paradise can begin.
In the end, the House GOP leadership wanted a bill that contained a small amount of money to actually address the problem, made a policy change Republicans want (expediting deportations of Central American children), and did some things that don't address the problem at all (like beefing up border security, which is irrelevant since these kids are happily turning themselves in). But the conservatives wanted to attach a provision to the bill that would also undo the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, under which "dreamers" who have been in the U.S. since before 2007 can stay under certain conditions.
As Cruz and his allies knew quite well, while the broader GOP bill faced an uncertain fate in the Senate, a bill that had DACA repeal attached to it had zero chance of passing there. So what was the point? It may be that they were thinking along the same lines as conservative wise man Bill Kristol, who today told Republicans to pass nothing and let Barack Obama take the blame:
If the GOP does nothing, and if Republicans explain that there's no point acting due to the recalcitrance of the president to deal with the policies that are causing the crisis, the focus will be on the president. Republican incumbents won't have problematic legislation to defend or questions to answer about what further compromises they'll make. Republican challengers won't have to defend or attack GOP legislation. Instead, the focus can be on the president—on his refusal to enforce the immigration law, on the effect of his unwise and arbitrary executive actions in 2012, on his pending rash and illegal further executive acts in 2014, and on his refusal to deal with the real legal and policy problems causing the border crisis.
Hooray! Sure, the crisis that they're allegedly so angry about would continue unabated. But what's that next to a little political difficulty for Barack Obama?
Something quite similar is happening on the Affordable Care Act. The phrase you now hear from everyone on the right is that the law will "collapse under its own weight," which is a way of saying that even though there's been nothing but good news lately about how the law is going, it's so awful that it will inevitably cause such horrible suffering that everyone will come to agree with us that it must be repealed. "I think it's going to collapse under its own weight in time," says Paul Ryan. "Obamacare will collapse under its own weight," writes Phil Gramm in the Wall Street Journal. "Eventually, all this is going to collapse around them," says Rep. Marsha Blackburn about the law.
That "collapse" is a fantasy that will never happen, but let's take them at their word when they say it will. While they never get specific about what the collapse will look like, by definition it would be disastrous for millions of Americans. Would they lose their insurance coverage, or be unable to get treatment for serious medical conditions? It would have to be something like that to constitute a "collapse." And the Republican position isn't, "This collapse is coming, so we'd better work hard to make sure it doesn't and insulate vulnerable Americans from its effects." Instead, their position is, "This collapse is coming, so we'll just wait until the nightmare of suffering and death plays itself out, after which we'll be there to offer our as-yet-undetermined health care alternative."
The Halbig lawsuit that Republicans are all guffawing about was nothing if not an effort to heighten the contradictions and accelerate the collapse. If it succeeds, insurance subsidies will be taken away from Americans in 36 states, making coverage unaffordable for millions. Republicans won't say explicitly that this is the outcome they desire, but it's the only reason to file the lawsuit in the first place. And of course, if the disaster of those millions losing coverage was something Republicans wanted to forestall, they could do it in an afternoon. Just pass a short bill making clear that subsidies apply in every state, and the problem would be solved. But that, of course, wouldn't heighten the contradictions.
This idea has its limits—for instance, Congress is probably going to pass some short-term fix for the highway trust fund before tomorrow. But that's because it would be harder for Republicans to escape blame for the consequences when all those construction projects start shutting down. If there's any way at all for Obama can take the fall on an issue, they'll do it.
To be sure, there is a certain logic at work here. Like every political party, today's Republicans believe that if they were in complete control, their preferred policies would be so glorious and work so well that the total of suffering in the country would be reduced to microscopic levels. So some increased suffering in the short term is tolerable if it helps us get closer to that future nirvana. That's of some reassurance, right?