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Heritage Hearts Shutdowns

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Nearly every time Tea Party conservatives make a move, we read some version of a particular opening sentence. The latest is from the New York Times: “Shortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III gathered in the capital to plot strategy.” Sometimes the lede references a “tight-knit” group gathering, sometimes Newt Gingrich and/or Dick Armey gets name-checked rather than Ed Meese, but the basic scenario is the same. There is always a group of assholes “gathering” to “plot” out some sort of terrible strategy to foil the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature piece of legislation.

In this case, the Times story unveils the strategy of Meese and friends to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase television ads to “sway” Republican lawmakers to do everything in their power to prevent the full implementation of Obamacare—including, if necessary, shuttering the federal government. “The current budget brinkmanship is just the latest development in a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law,” the Times writes, before launching into a lengthy list of donations and ad buys over the course of many months.

The usual suspects emerge as key players in this very costly effort to shut down the federal government, including the Club for Growth, Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and other Koch Brothers-soaked “upstarts” like Generation Opportunity. And then there is that old stalwart, the Heritage Foundation think tank and its recently founded enforcer, Heritage Action.

In the latest issue of The Baffler, I examined the role of the modern think tank, with an emphasis on the Heritage Foundation and its new president, former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, as the vanguards of the new model: “Instead of letting scholars of various shades of true believership study what interests them without predetermined conclusions, think tanks are now expected to formulate new ways to echo one or another approved ideological dogma—and then marshal lawmakers, none too subtly, to march in lockstep behind it.”

DeMint, a top advocate of banning earmarks and other parliamentary tools that might actually induce a fence-sitting lawmaker to vote for something, now sits atop a stockpile of direct-mail-solicited cash overseeing all legislative action, demanding constant “no” votes and signatures on petitions for actions that will never materialize, running scary ads, and sending stern email “alerts” back home to those who dare to defy DeMint and the movement he manages.

And, while Heritage would say that there’s a firewall between the policy work of the foundation and the tactical meddling of Heritage Action, the Times piece makes pretty clear that wall, if it exists, is a porous at best;

The crowd was raucous at the Hilton Anatole, just north of downtown Dallas, when Mr. Needham’s group, Heritage Action, arrived on a Tuesday in August for the second stop on a nine-city “Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour.” Nearly 1,000 people turned out to hear two stars of the Tea Party movement: Mr. Cruz, and Jim DeMint, a former South Carolina senator who runs the Heritage Foundation. […]

But the idea of using the appropriations process to defund an entire federal program, particularly one as far-reaching as the health care overhaul, raised the stakes considerably. In an interview, Mr. DeMint, who left the Senate to join the Heritage Foundation in January, said he had been thinking about it since the law’s passage, in part because Republican leaders were not more aggressive.

“They’ve been through a series of C.R.s and debt limits,” Mr. DeMint said, referring to continuing resolutions on spending, “and all the time there was discussion of ‘O.K., we’re not going to fight the Obamacare fight, we’ll do it next time.’ The conservatives who ran in 2010 promising to repeal it kept hearing, ‘This is not the right time to fight this battle.’”

The article reveals that DeMint is much more concerned with pressuring lawmakers to defund Obamacare than he is with sitting at his desk reading boring white papers all day. Defunding the law is the primary focus.

It’s interesting that Heritage has become the most aggressive of all the radicalized right-wing money groups that have emerged in the Obama era. The battle lines for the defunding fight among right-wing non-pols have been the Club for Growth/Heritage Foundation (for defunding at all costs) versus the Wall Street Journal editorial board/Karl Rove/Grover Norquist (who think it’s not worth a shutdown). But in the hours leading up to the shutdown last week, the Club for Growth endorsed one version of the House plan that would have delayed the individual mandate and eliminated insurance subsidies for congress members and their staffs. But Heritage Action wouldn’t even endorse that plan, considering it too much of a compromise from the full-defund or delay position.

From the outside, the Heritage “think tank” doesn’t seem to have given much thought to the endgame of this shutdown strategy. But hey, whatever brings in donations.