Monday, December 03, 2007

Why conservatives oppose universal healthcare

In a recent issue of National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry explained how Republicans can avert electoral disaster and get back on track. Conservative writers offer advice columns like these periodically, but this one included a concession we usually don’t see in print.

The plain truth is that the [Republican] party faces a cataclysm, a rout that would give Democrats control of the White House and enhanced majorities in the House and the Senate. That defeat would, in turn, guarantee the confirmation of a couple of young, liberal Supreme Court nominees, putting the goal of moving the Court in a more constitutionalist direction out of reach for another generation. It would probably also mean a national health-insurance program that would irrevocably expand government involvement in the economy and American life, and itself make voters less likely to turn toward conservatism in the future. (emphasis added)

This apparently, is the principal fear. Not just that Democrats will win, but also that they’ll implement a policy agenda. And it’s not just that the agenda is liberal, it’s that the agenda will discourage Americans from embracing a conservative agenda in the future.

Paul Krugman, responding to the Ponnuru/Lowry piece, noted:

I think that sentence contains a grim truth for progressives: the right will fight any health reform tooth and nail. They believe — and so do I — that the implications of universal coverage would extend far beyond health care, that it would revitalize the New Deal idea. And so they’ll do anything to stop it.

This isn’t an entirely new point, but it’s worth rehashing once in a while: the right will resist universal healthcare with all its might because, as a matter of electoral strategy, conservatives don’t have a choice.

It’s largely faded from the political world’s memory, but I’d argue the most important moment in the debate over the Clinton healthcare plan in the early 1990s came when Bill Kristol distributed a memo to congressional Republicans — exactly 14 years ago yesterday.

Leading conservative operative William Kristol privately circulates a strategy document to Republicans in Congress. Kristol writes that congressional Republicans should work to “kill” — not amend — the Clinton plan because it presents a real danger to the Republican future: Its passage will give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party. Nearly a full year before Republicans will unite behind the “Contract With America,” Kristol has provided the rationale and the steel for them to achieve their aims of winning control of Congress and becoming America’s majority party. Killing health care will serve both ends. The timing of the memo dovetails with a growing private consensus among Republicans that all-out opposition to the Clinton plan is in their best political interest. (emphasis added)

It wasn’t about the quality of the policy, necessarily; it was about political survival. If Dems could deliver on a universal, national healthcare system, Dems would be positioned to win over a generation of voters. Killing the bill undermined the needs of millions, but it also meant blocking Dems from a historic victory.

As far as the Republican Party and its allied hacks like Kristol were concerned, the choice was obvious.

And it still is. If a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress can finish what Bill Clinton started in 1993, Ponnuru and Lowry said, Americans will be “discouraged…from embracing a conservative agenda in the future.” If that means tens of millions of Americans without access to healthcare, so be it.

We saw a helpful reminder of this during the S-CHIP debate over the summer.

[W]hy should Mr. Bush fear that insuring uninsured children would lead to a further “federalization” of health care, even though nothing like that is actually in either the Senate plan or the House plan? It’s not because he thinks the plans wouldn’t work. It’s because he’s afraid that they would. That is, he fears that voters, having seen how the government can help children, would ask why it can’t do the same for adults.

And there you have the core of Mr. Bush’s philosophy. He wants the public to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution. But it’s hard to convince people that government is always bad when they see it doing good things. So his philosophy says that the government must be prevented from solving problems, even if it can. In fact, the more good a proposed government program would do, the more fiercely it must be opposed.

As Brian Beutler added, “The fear for conservatives is that it’ll work so well that people will begin to realize that it might be worth paying for broader reforms with broader taxes, and so would blossom a vastly improved health care system in this country at the expense of a few very powerful interests.”

And we really can’t have that.

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