Posted by: Jeff | March 23, 2010

Reaping What They Have Sown

This post by conservative commentator and former Bush speechwriter David Frum, taking apart the Republican strategy on health care, has been making the rounds since the passage of the reform bill.

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.

Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton’s 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.

This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.

It really is time to put to bed this myth that Republicans wanted to be good-faith negotiators on health care reform, but were shut out of the loop by power-hungry Democrats. Joe, I think, put it well in one of our podcasts – the Republicans did not want this reform on anyone’s terms but their own, and that stance shaped the interaction between the two parties for the entire legislative process.

Frum is right to call this decision strategic, but that’s just a nice way of saying it was political. The decision to engage in total obstruction was, for many Republicans, most definitely not one of principle. As Frum points out, the bill Obama has just signed bears (with some key differences) a strong family resemblance to the universal plan Mitt Romney signed into law in Massachusetts. And the structural foundations of both plans were laid out by the Republicans in their alternatives to Clinton’s reform bill in the 90s. For many Republicans, the approach taken by the Democrats’ bill does sufficiently well by their principles that they themselves were willing to propose such an approach under different political circumstances.

The only people who could really consider even this bill an intolerable violation of principle – people who oppose any collectivization of responsibility or any wealth redistribution at all, even when it is done by preserving and cooperating with private industry – are the people in the hard-core, radical conservative base. Maybe a fourth of the country. And they’re the ones the party decided to follow, leading to its collective defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

Republicans chose, early on, to kill any possibility that the reform bill could be crafted by an intelligent and cooperative bipartisan process. And they made that choice quite consciously.

But you have to balance that [the consequences of the Republicans’ obstruction] against something Mitch McConnell has said: “What I tried to do and what John [Boehner] did very skillfully, as well, was to unify our members in opposition to it. Had we not done that, I don’t think the public would have been as appalled as they became over the fact that the government was now running banks, insurance companies, car companies, taking over the student-loan business, which they’re going to try to do in this health care bill, and taking over one-sixth of the economy. Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do.”

Put simply, if Republicans had worked with Democrats on health-care reform, the bill would not have been as unpopular. There was a zero-sum game between the politics and the policy. The strategy to make a moderate bill look like an extreme document relied on the optics of total Republican opposition coloring perceptions of the underlying legislation. Any move to exchange Republican votes for legislative concessions would have undercut the political case against the bill.

Long story short, the Republicans made a deliberate decision to falsely paint this bill as some kind of socialist take-over in order to rile up their base. The strategy worked, but with their base on full kill-the-bill mode, the Republicans had no political room to compromise with the Democrats. So they demolished their own approval with the public by trapping themselves in a strategy of obstruction, and left themselves vulnerable to a majority of sufficiently unusual strength that it could basically steam-roll them if it chose to do so. Which it ultimately did.

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