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Politics 1st, country 2nd

In early October 2007, as the two parties locked horns in Congress over the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), Michigan Republican Rep. Thaddeus McCotter defined the battle as central to the very existence of the GOP.

“If our Republican Party is daunted by the politics of SCHIP and shrinks from reaffirming its defining principles, social welfare programs will never help poor Americans escape governmental dependence,” wrote McCotter on his blog. “Instead, the Democrats will continue their push to shackle Americans with a bureaucrat-centered healthcare system and other insidious forms of governmental dependence; and our Republican Party — the party of the Great Emancipator — will not only lose the next election. It will lose its soul.”

There is, indeed, a genuine fear in conservative circles that greater government-run healthcare opportunities will warm middle-class voters to the idea of a more interventionist government, much as Social Security is now considered the third rail of politics. In fact, much of McCotter’s sentiments were derivative of William Kristol’s now-famous secret memo to congressional Republicans during the battle over President Clinton’s 1993 healthcare reform plan.

Warning his comrades to shun compromise and kill the Clinton plan, Kristol cautioned that any sort of universal healthcare would “re-legitimize middle-class dependence for ‘security’ on government spending and regulation” and “revive the reputation of … the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests.” In short, the more that people felt government was their ally, the more they would be compelled to vote Democratic in future elections. Hence, Republicans were forced to stand in the way of the common good, lest their future electoral fortunes take a turn for the worse.

Those fears are as salient today as they were 16 years ago. The Libertarian Cato Institute’s director of health policy studies, Michael Cannon, wrote a blog post last November titled “Blocking Obama’s Health Plan Is Key to the GOP’s Survival.” And it’s a fear so ingrained that McCotter and his merry band of conservative dead-enders drew a line in the sand and worked with President Bush to derail a program to extend healthcare to lower- and middle-class children.

The SCHIP expansion was overwhelmingly popular, supported by 72 percent of the public, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. A second CNN poll found 61 percent of adults preferring an override for Bush’s two vetoes of the SCHIP expansion. And yet, despite knowing that the issue would be attack-ad fodder for Democrats in the upcoming election, Republicans held strong. It was better to have kids go without proper healthcare and risk short-term electoral pain than to endanger the GOP’s long-term electoral prospects. They would also kick puppies and ban apple pie if it would win them elections.

And unsurprisingly, Democrats did indeed use those SCHIP votes against Republicans all across the land, with 11 of those “no” votes losing their jobs, even in deep-red districts in Idaho and Colorado.

Many others came close to electoral death, which prompted six of those survivors in competitive districts to switch their votes to “yes” when SCHIP expansion returned to the House last week.

Among those defectors? Why, none other than Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who won his own race by a narrow 51-46 margin against a Democrat who raised just $29,000 the entire 2008 campaign cycle.

That near-death experience apparently proved too much for McCotter, who tossed aside his lofty convictions — the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, no less! — to join Democrats in voting for the SCHIP expansion.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos.