Opinion

How Planned Parenthood became Republicans' new white whale

Wait, what happened to ObamaCare, you ask? Good question!

Remember ObamaCare? The Affordable Care Act, the law that Republicans loathed with such a desperate passion that they would move any mountain, cross any river, shut down any government to destroy? They still hate it, of course, which you'll find out if you ask them. But curiously, they're no longer holding votes to repeal it, almost as if something robbed the issue of its urgency.

It's not that they've been distracted by the presidential campaign, because they still have a legislative white whale they're sailing after with murder in their eyes. Only now, funding for Planned Parenthood is the focus of Republican indignation, the one line they pledge never to cross, the sword upon which they threaten to hurl themselves at every moment where congressional action on anything is required. How did this change come about, and what does it portend for the future?

One explanation is that after so many pointless votes to repeal the ACA, Republicans just got tired of it. Each new vote began to feel less like an expression of their righteous rage and more like the embodiment of their impotence. Liberals mocked them by keeping count of how many times they had voted for repeal — 40, then 50, then 60 — and their insistence that they would have a replacement plan ready any day now became increasingly ridiculous. Their presidential nominee, as David Frum has pointed out, seldom mentions the issue, and when he does, it's in an almost perfunctory way (oh yeah, repeal and replace, we're totally going to do that). It's not that he wouldn't sign a repeal bill if it were placed in front of him, but you can tell it's just one more piece of boring policy stuff he couldn't care less about.

So earlier this year, Congress passed a bill that would have both repealed the ACA and defunded Planned Parenthood, in a kind of passing of the baton from the former to the latter. The final vote, to override President Obama's veto, came in February; it was the 63rd time Republicans had voted to repeal the ACA, and it fittingly occurred on Groundhog Day. And today, when Republicans want to hold up an important bill or threaten to shut down the government, they don't say they'll do it unless we repeal the ACA, they say they'll do it unless we defund Planned Parenthood.

Just to be clear, when we talk about "defunding" Planned Parenthood, we aren't talking about some kind of undeserved government largesse; the bulk of federal funding the group receives comes in the form of reimbursements for medical services provided to women on Medicaid. By law, none of that money pays for abortions. So defunding means telling poor women they can't go to Planned Parenthood clinics to get gynecological exams, pregnancy tests, cancer screenings, or the other services the clinics provide.

These days, when Republicans want to throw sand in the government's gears, they turn to Planned Parenthood. Congress still hasn't passed a bill allocating funds to fight the Zika virus, because Republicans insisted on including a provision that blocked patients from getting treatment for the illness at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Now they have to pass a temporary budget measure to keep the government open through the end of the year, and the question is whether it will founder on a demand from conservatives to, you guessed it, defund Planned Parenthood. We've been through this before, including a genuine shutdown in 2013, but then it was ACA repeal that was the casus belli.

If you're thinking that the justification for Republican intransigence matters less than the fact of the intransigence itself, you're right. The real purpose is to show voters back home that you hate Barack Obama, you hate Democrats, you hate liberals, and you're completely unwilling to compromise, to the point where you'd rather see the government shut down than allow the status quo to continue on whatever the target of your current outrage is. Don't forget that the conservative members of the House who drive these showdowns come mostly from safe Republican districts where the only political peril they face is in the form of a primary challenge from the right. That means they have to provide regular demonstrations that nobody's going to out-conservative them.

To be clear, I'm not questioning the sincerity of their hatred for Planned Parenthood. They have their reasons — it provides abortions, of course, plus its political affiliate supports Democrats. What has changed is where they place defunding Planned Parenthood on their list of priorities. For years it was something they wanted to do, but it was less important than cutting taxes or increasing military spending — they believed in it, but they weren't going to use it as an excuse to cause a crisis.

But now they will. Now Planned Parenthood is the signal of ideological authenticity and tactical extremism that they send to the folks back home, as a way of assuring them that their representative is a warrior for all that's right and good, willing to do almost anything in the service of this cause. And ObamaCare? Oh...well, we still care about that, too, they'll say. Not going to shut down the government over it or anything, but we made our point with those 63 repeal votes, didn't we?

If Hillary Clinton gets elected, we could well see a rotating menu of legislative outrage, where one issue and then another becomes the line Republicans draw in the sand. It's Planned Parenthood now, but if they decide that it's lost its punch as a way to show their constituents how strong and noble they are, something else will take its place. But it will always be something.

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