Paul Nitze: Don’t read too much into Tuesday’s results
November 5, 2009
Two governor’s races and a congressional vacancy election do not make a referendum. Interpretation of off-year elections generally has a Rorschach Test quality to it, telling us more about the interpreter than the national political mood. This year’s races are no different.
So when Republican Party chairman Michael Steele crows about a grassroots wave of “real heroes” putting the GOP back in the driver’s seat, reach for the salt shaker. These races were not a straw poll on the president’s agenda, nor were they a harbinger of doom for Democrats in the 2010 mid-terms. Nevertheless, the results will deepen the melancholy of those hoping for legislative movement in Washington.
If you think we’re on a political treadmill now, just wait. It’s only getting worse. I say that because there’s a strong argument that these results cast doubt on the core political gambit of the Obama White House.
Since his earliest days as a national candidate, the president has followed this basic playbook: (1) use soaring, inspirational rhetoric to generate unprecedented grassroots momentum, (2) play the part of an arch-pragmatist when it comes to translating vision into law, (3) discard the more liberal parts of your platform, steal the better parts of your opponents’, and keep your eyes on the core fixes, (4) paint your opponents as reactionary, unreasonable, and obstructionist if they oppose the grand compromise.
That playbook only works when, at the end of day, your opponents suffer more for opposing you than you suffer for not making good on your electoral promises. The 2009 election results are an indicator that even a divided, ideologically bankrupt Republican Party can gain a net political benefit from reflexive opposition.
Nowhere is this clearer than on health care. Yesterday the GOP House leadership unveiled an alternative health care bill that is laughably inadequate. You’ll find more substance in cotton candy. Rather than tackle the basic issues of lack of coverage, misaligned incentives, and runaway costs, the bill is a grab-bag of proposals recycled from the Hastert/Delay years.
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Tort reform, the secret spice of every GOP health care proposal, is the leader. Other ingredients in the recipe? Cross-state competition by insurers, a sprinkling of tax incentives to lower premium costs, and a push toward the creation of “high risk pools” for the elderly and uninsured.
Say what you will about the bills passed by the House and under consideration in the Senate. You can call them pigs in a poke. You can say that they do more to decrease choice and access in health care than they are worth in the form of increased coverage. But at least they form a comprehensive response to the fact that the health care status quo is driving us into bankruptcy and failing to cover about 50 million people. The Republicans’ response to the charge that the status quo is a slow-rolling disaster? Silence.
Savvy Republican politicians and political consultants have fretted over the summer and fall that they will suffer popular backlash if they take down the Democrats’ bill without proposing a comprehensive alternative. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a 2008 McCain campaign advisor, published an op-ed a few days back detailing his own struggle to stay insured and his concern about the GOP legislative vacuum on health care.
Depressingly, they’re too fearful by half. Whatever bill emerges from Congress late this year or early next, it will contain several elements cobbled from the 2008 Republican presidential playbook. The single best idea on the Republican side of this debate – imposing some level of tax on employer-provided health care plans – will be in the final bill. And yet the Republicans will not suffer if they take it down.
Once upon a time, think the 1950s, American conservatism offered a thoughtful “no” when large-scale government intervention was directed toward various parts of the American economy. This was a purposeful vision, the vision sold by William F. Buckley and a host of his admirers to an increasingly receptive public.
Nowadays, the Republicans’ “no” has no purpose behind it, save the destruction of the Obama presidency. The “no” isn’t backed up by thoughtful policy counter-proposals, or a coherent ideological vision.
But the American public has known this for the past year, and didn’t punish the GOP for its senseless obstructionism at the ballot box (albeit in a set of mostly state and local races). And that shouldn’t really surprise us. There is a very strong reflex among voters to punish the majority party for inaction whatever the cause. So those Democrats who think next year’s mid-terms won’t see a loss of seats in the House and Senate are poor students of electoral history.
A Senate with 60 Democratic senators will be whittled down to a caucus of 53 or 54. Democrats in the House will likely hang on to a majority, albeit a thin one. Americans will be stuck with a majority party that can’t command a majority on any bill of consequence, and an opposition that’s not worthy of the title. If you are a backer of the White House effort on health care, cross your fingers it passes, because there will be no change in tune from the GOP when the rest of the White House agenda comes up for a vote.
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