Back in the depths of the Cold War, people used to talk about “doomsday machines,” devices that could destroy the world. What would be the use of such a device, since anyone using it would destroy himself, too? Well, the main idea was that it could provide deterrence.
But there was also the notion that a madman with access to such a device could use it for blackmail: “Give me what I want or I’ll blow everything up.”
The good news is that this never happened on the nuclear front. The bad news is that a form of doomsday-machine politics — in which you threaten to blow up things that you care about, because you think your rivals care about them more — is playing out in Washington right now, courtesy of the Republican Party.
Doomsday-machine politics made its first U.S. appearance in the 1990s, when Republicans shut down the federal government in an attempt to extract concessions from Bill Clinton.
That didn’t go well for the G.O.P. But Republicans tried again, with more success, in 2011, using the threat of refusing to raise the debt ceiling — forcing the U.S. government into default, with possibly catastrophic effects on the world economy — to win policy concessions from Barack Obama.
And even though they now control the White House as well as Congress, Republicans are still in the doomsday-machine business — and what they’re currently threatening to blow up is health care for nearly nine million children.
Some background: Since Donald Trump took office, Republicans have tried to govern as if Democrats didn’t exist. They tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and succeeded in ramming through huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, without seeking a single Democratic vote — in fact, without even holding hearings where Democrats could comment on the proposals.
Now, however, G.O.P. leaders are in trouble. They need to pass a “continuing resolution” in order to maintain funding for the government and avoid a shutdown. But despite control of both houses of Congress, they don’t have the votes.
Why not? In the House, the main problem was ultra-right-wing members, who don’t want to support even routine spending. Still, Republicans didn’t need Democrats to get a bill through.
However, passing the bill in the Senate will require 60 votes. With only 51 Republicans Democratic votes are needed.
Once upon a time a party that needed some help from across the aisle would have sought a deal that made some concessions to the other party’s agenda. And until a few days ago it seemed as if normal political rules still applied.
A bipartisan group of senators reached a deal that would have met a key Democratic priority: protecting the Dreamers — young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children, who want to remain in the only country they have ever known. And in return for that agreement — which actually involved a number of concessions to Republicans — Democrats would have been willing to help keep the government running.
Protecting the Dreamers is, by the way, enormously popular, even among Republicans, who oppose deporting them by a huge margin. So it’s not as if the G.O.P. would be giving up a lot. But Donald Trump torpedoed the deal, apparently because he doesn’t want immigrants from “shithole countries.”
This sent Republican leaders back to the drawing board, and what they came up with was another doomsday threat, this time aimed at children.
You see, back in 1997 a bipartisan deal created the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, an expansion of Medicaid to cover children who might not otherwise have been eligible. CHIP has been a huge success story, at modest cost. And at this point the Congressional Budget Office says that extending CHIP for another 10 years would actually save the government money, because some families forced off the program would end up receiving subsidies for more expensive sources of coverage.
But Republicans allowed CHIP funding to expire almost four months ago. Since then, they’ve kept promising to do something, but haven’t. And now they’ve attached an extension of the program to passage of a continuing resolution, believing that this will force Democrats to give them what they want.
The thing is, G.O.P. politicians claim to support CHIP; while there isn’t a lot of polling on the issue, what there is suggests overwhelming popular support, including among Republican voters, for continuing the program.
Yet G.O.P. leaders seem to believe that they can bully Democrats by threatening to hurt millions of children — because Democrats care more about those children than they do. They also believe that if this tactic fails they can frame it as an exhibition of callousness by Democrats.
Democrats should just say no. These tactics cannot be allowed to succeed.
For once doomsday-machine politics becomes the norm, anything is fair game. Give us what we want, or we’ll cut off Medicare. Give us what we want, or we’ll destroy Social Security.
This has to stop. And now is the time to draw the line.