THE PLANK DECEMBER 21, 2009
TNR published a piece I did the other day examining the ideological underpinnings of the left/center split in the Democratic Party over the propriety of a universal health care system based on regulated and subsidized private health insurers. I suggested there was a burgeoning, if questionably workable, tactical alliance between “social-democratic” progressives and some conservatives to derail much of the Obama overall agenda. Then I made this observation:
[O]n a widening range of issues, Obama's critics to the right say he's engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can't both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance. But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.
This statement has drawn considerable comment from people on both the Right and Left, mainly objecting to the argument that Obama’s critics can’t all be right.
Conservative theoretician Reihan Salam, writing for National Review, first argued that there’s not much substantive difference between the “New Democrat” deployment of private-sector entities in public initiatives and that favored by the privatizers of the Right. But then he pirouetted to make common cause with Obama’s critics on the Left:
It is entirely possible for both sets of critics to be correct. The concern from the right isn't that the Obama approach will literally nationalize for-profit health insurers. Rather, it is that for-profit health insurers will continue evolving into heavily subsidized firms that function as public utilities, and that seek advantage by gaming the political process. Profits, including profits governed by medical loss ratios, can and will then be cycled into political action, which leads to the anxiety concerning a "corporate takeover of the public sector."
Salam’s friend Ross Douthat of The New York Times added an "amen" to this argument:
The point is that the more intertwined industry and government become, the harder it is to discern who’s “taking over” whom — and the less it matters, because the taxpayer is taking it on the chin either way.
But do conservatives really oppose this intertwining of industry and government? Rhetorically, yes, operationally—not so much.
Consider the default-drive Republican approach to health care reform, such as it is. It typically begins with federal preemption of state medical malpractice laws and health insurance regulation, the latter intended to produce a national market for private insurance (while also, not coincidentally, eliminating existing state provisions designed to prevent discriminatory practices). But the centerpiece is invariably large federal tax credits, accompanied by killing off the current tax deduction for employer-provided coverage, all designed to massively subsidize the purchase of private health insurance by individuals (with or without, depending on the proposal, any sort of group purchases for high-risk individuals). Another conservative pet rock is federal support for Health Savings Accounts, which encourage healthy people to pay cash for most medical services, perhaps supplemented by (very profitable) private catastrophic insurance policies. And most conservatives, when they aren’t “Medagoguing” Democratic proposals to rein in Medicare costs, favor “voucherizing” Medicare benefits—another gigantic subsidy for private health insurers.
Now some conservatives will privately tell you that all these subsidy-and-deregulation schemes are just an interim “solution” towards that great gettin’ up morning when tax rates can be massively lowered, all the tax credits, vouchers and other subsidies can be eliminated, and the government gets out of the health insurance business entirely. But don’t expect to see that on any campaign manifestos in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Republicans generally support huge government subsidies to corporations without any public-spirited regulatory concessions in return.
Do anti-“corporatist” progressives really think they can make common cause with conservatives, beyond deep-sixing Obama’s agenda in the short term? Well, sorta kinda. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who rejected my "incompatibility" argument about left and right critics of “corporatism” as strongly as did Salam, is smart and honest enough to acknowledge there’s no real common ground with conventional conservatives or Republican pols. He instead offers a vision of an “outsider” coalition that includes anti-corporatist progressives and Tea Party types. This is, of course, the age-old “populist” dream (most famously articulated by Tom Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?) of a progressive takeover of the Democratic Party that attracts millions of current GOP voters (or nonvoters) who don’t share the economic interests of the Republican Party or the conservative movement but have seen little difference between the two parties.
All I can say is: Good luck with that, Glenn. Short of a complete and immediate revolution within one or both parties, complete with blood purges and electoral chaos, it’s hard to see any vehicle for a left-right “populist” alliance other than a Lou Dobbs presidential run. Barring that unlikely convergence, wrecking Obama’s “corporate” agenda would produce little more on the horizon than a return to the kind of governance we enjoyed during the Bush years, or maybe a bit worse given the current savage trajectory of the GOP.
Part of my intention in the original essay was to suggest that pro-Obama Democrats take seriously the views of intra-party rebels on health care and other issues, instead of insulting them as impractical and childish or obsessed with meaningless totems like the “public option” (which in the anti-corporatist context isn’t meaningless at all). But said rebels really do need to think through where they are going, and where they would take Democrats and the progressive coalition.
Meanwhile, conservatives need to be far less pious about their alleged objections to “corporatism.” Cheap rhetoric aside, their own agenda (when it’s not just preserving the status quo) is largely corporatism with any clear and enforceable public purpose cast aside whenever possible.
TNR Special Correspondent Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.