When “No” Becomes a Political Philosophy

By Ishan Nath

In the partisan climate of Washington, one party has taken particular exception to the provision in the 2009 health care reform bill that would require individuals to purchase health insurance. These champions of individual freedom have stood up to defeat what Senator Jon Kyl called “a stunning assault on individual liberty,” with attorneys general from 20 states mounting challenges to the law’s constitutionality. Senator Orrin Hatch brought the issue to Congress, introducing the “American Liberty Restoration Act” to repeal the mandate.

Another party has spent decades centering its health insurance reform plans on an individual mandate that allows for expanded coverage by forcing people to buy insurance before they get sick. A moderate governor from this party used a mandate to enact reform that has expanded coverage to 98.6% of his state’s residents. Building on past proposals and the ideas of prominent scholars from his party, he hailed the mandate as a “personal responsibility principle,” that would prevent “free riders” from taking advantage of emergency room treatment without purchasing insurance. His party, said the governor, believed that “everybody should have insurance. They should pay what they can afford to pay. If they need help, we will be there to help them, but no more free ride.”

With such wildly diverging views of the individual mandate – from an assault on liberty to a core component of enabling access to health care – it stands to logic that the parties would not get along. But logic fails to explain how both of the views above can come from the same party and even the same people in the same party. The governor above is, of course, Mitt Romney. And when it comes to mandating health insurance coverage, he was only reflecting the Republican consensus.

Years before Senator Hatch was ostentatiously restoring American liberty by repealing the law he now calls “clearly unconstitutional,” he sponsored legislation to enact it. So, too, have Republican Senators Bob Bennett, Kit Bond, Richard Lugar, Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, Mike Crapo, Lindsey Graham, Judd Gregg, and Chuck Grassley. In 2009, Grassley told Fox News that “I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates.” And yet, the idea that began with Republican President Richard Nixon and the conservative Heritage Foundation has managed to become the epitome of the big government bogeyman. Republican politicians from every corner of the country are voting in unison and lining up on cable news shows to decry the abomination that is . . . their own idea.

So what, really, is the problem with the individual mandate? Well, the idea belongs to President Obama now. And that means it must be bad.

This type of turnaround is not new. For the past two years, Republican political strategy has clung unwaveringly to a dogma of fighting tooth and nail every single thing the President proposes whether or not they originally disagreed. The attitude has been one in which the will to oppose drives which ideas are adopted, rather than the other way around. Health care reform, more broadly than the mandate, mirrors virtually identically the Republican reform proposal from 1993. Yet, conservative politicians and commentators have trashed the legislation as “a government takeover” of one-sixth of the economy, a statement the nonpartisan website politifact.com called the “Lie of the Year” and vowed to repeal it.

Whatever their previous plans for health care reform, whatever efforts President Obama made – and there were several – to incorporate malpractice reform and other conservative ideas in exchange for their support, denying the President a political victory – or at least tainting its effect with unified, vibrant opposition – trumped all other legislative priorities. In this Congress, any idea the President adopted became instantly toxic to Republicans. After a year of calling for cutting the capital gains tax on small businesses, they filibustered Obama’s attempt to do so. After months of saying that the 1099 provision of the health care bill would cripple small businesses with piles of paperwork, they filibustered a Democrat’s attempt to repeal it.

The trouble is that, over time, political leaders start to believe what they tell themselves and positions that start out purely out of obstructionism become entrenched as party philosophy. Remember 2008, when John McCain and Mike Huckabee represented a widening of the Republican consensus in supporting cap-and-trade legislation to combat climate change? Newt Gingrich was holding hands with Nancy Pelosi in WeCanSolve it commercials, writing a book called the Contract With the Earth, and telling the public that “I think if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, that there’s a package there that’s very, very good. And frankly, it’s something I would strongly support.” But then, President Obama got elected and cap-and-trade became his idea instead of McCain’s. Before long, the party had launched itself into a frenzy of climate denialism, scrambling to reverse their positions to make the new President look like a nightmare from left-wing hell. Nowadays, Gingrich derides the cap-and-trade legislation he once supported as part the President’s so called “secular-socialist machine,” which he has compared to Nazi institutions. Before the election of 2008, Republicans were coalescing in favor of cap-and-trade climate legislation, but in the fervor to make President Obama look bad, they took legislation they once supported and demonized it completely out of their party.

The problem for the new Republican Congress is that they actually share ground with the President on several issues. Republicans don’t like high corporate tax rates to make up for an inefficient tax code ridden with loopholes. The President and his economic team have spoken frequently of making tax reform a key issue in the upcoming Congress. Republicans want to reduce the deficit by cutting unnecessary spending, or at least they have said so. The President appointed a bipartisan commission that drew up a deficit reduction blueprint with a three-to-one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. Several Republicans – including Hatch, Lugar, Alexander, Graham, and the conservative American Enterprise Institute – have voiced support for increasing investment for researching and developing clean energy technology, a continuing priority of the Obama Administration.

There are 60 Senators who, given the opportunity to vote their conscience, would support legislative action and, where necessary, compromises to address these issues. If American public policy makes any progress in areas crucial to the future of our nation, it will be because they had the guts to do so.

But if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was telling the truth when he said that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” there will not be 60 votes for anything. And if the new Republican members of Congress continue the political strategy of berating every idea the President suggests, then the party will enter the 2012 election having disparaged tax reform, moderately constructed deficit reduction, and investment in energy technology as a radical left-wing agenda.

And the party philosophy of “no” will spread its roots further and wider.

This entry was posted in Articles for Volume 4, Issue 2, Winter 2011, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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