THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 22, 2009
Yesterday I wrote about the Republican strategy of unabated opposition to health care reform. Thinking about it some more, I really wonder if the Republican party is making a long-term policy blunder here.
The proposal unveiled by Max Baucus is actually a fairly conservative thing. As I noted, it reduces the budget deficit by a not-insignificant sum, has no public plan, and contains some extremely stingy benefits. For its funding it relies on spending cuts to Medicare and a reduction in the tax break for employer-sponsored health care -- a longtime conservative goal most recently proposed by John McCain. It has the backing of nearly all the affected business interests. As TNR's editorial notes, this is the kind of thing Republicans should be supporting.
Since every Republican not named Olympia Snowe has apparently decided to oppose the bill, Baucus has decided to try to build up support on his left flank. The negotiations now all revolve around weakening the tax break for high-cost health plans, beefing up the benefit package, and including some triggered public plan. In other words, they're making the bill more liberal.
But what if some Republicans had instead embraced the Baucus draft? They could have announced their support on the condition that the bill not be changed at any point in the process -- or even insisted on nudging it even further rightward. Moderate Democrats, who are desperate for GOP cover, would have lunged at that deal. It would have acquired the sheen of bipartisanship and probably become an unstoppable force, even at the cost of infuriating liberals. Instead, President Obama is probably going to sign a more liberal health care reform plan.
Now, I understand the reasons for the GOP's behavior. Republicans are acting in their individual and collective political self-interest. Individually, Republicans realize that their base is convinced that Obamacare equals socialism plus death panels, and thus any Republican who signs on would kiss away his political future and quite likely face a primary challenge. Collectively, the party has put all its chips on defeating health care reform, or, as a fallback, withholding support and rendering reform a "partisan" exercise that can be used against red state Democrats in 2010.
It's a smart political strategy. But the health care plan that Obama signs is going to be around for a very lon time. Republicans might one day come to wonder if picking up some seats in 2010 were worth forgoing a chance to help put their imprint on the U.S. health care system.