Timothy Noah

Coulter, Romneycare, And The GOP Crackup

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With Mitt Romney re-establishing himself, after the unpleasantness in South Carolina, as the Republicans' de facto nominee, I thought it would be fun to offer some sort of prize--say, a bronze replica of the 1939 Molotov-Von Ribbentrop pact--to the first Fox News personality to endorse Romney's absurd claim that Romneycare (good) was entirely different from Obamacare (bad). I never dreamed that Ann Coulter would beat me to the punch. She's never been much good at playing with the other children. (Remember when she called Jonah Goldberg and Rich Lowry "girly-boys"?) All I can say is that she must really, really want Obama out of the White House, because in her Feb. 1 column, "Three Cheers For Romneycare!" Coulter truly takes one for the team.

I'm in total agreement with the first 6-7 paragraphs, which explain that Romneycare's "individual mandate" requiring everyone to purchase health insurance has a conservative pedigree. The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, and Reason magazine all left fingerprints on it. The trouble begins when Coulter goes on to argue that the individual mandate is constitutional when applied at the state (Romney) level but unconstitutional when applied at the federal (Obama) level because "Congress has no constitutional authority to force citizens to buy a particular product." States, it seems, can do whatever they want. I'd love to see Coulter apply this logic to Washington, D.C.'s gun ban, which the Supreme Court struck down in District of Columbia v. Heller. Coulter might argue that D.C. isn't a state, but the Supremes mooted that distinction in McDonald v. Chicago.

Guns are, in fact, on Coulter's mind. (Are they ever not?) But not gun control and its constitutionality at the state level, alas. "There's no obvious constitutional difference between a state forcing militia-age males to equip themselves with guns," Coulter writes, "and a state forcing adults in today's world to equip themselves with health insurance." I agree. But there's also no obvious constitutional difference between a state forcing militia-age males to equip themselves with guns and the federal government effectively doing the same thing through conscription. Does Coulter (a proud graduate of the University of Michigan law school) believe that the military draft that existed from 1940 to 1973 (and also at earlier points in U.S. history) was unconstitutional?

Coulter seems to sense that this state-federal distinction isn't a winner. Apart from the constitutional issue, how can the mandatory purchase of health insurance be no big deal when the state makes you do it but a horrible intrusion on your individual liberty when the federal government makes you do it? It can't. So Coulter downplays the individual mandate's practical effect. "If Obamacare were a one-page bill that did nothing but mandate that every American buy health insurance," she writes, "it would still be unconstitutional, but it wouldn't be the godawful train wreck that it is." In Coulter's view, "Obamacare's unconstitutional provisions are the least of its horrors."

Okay. So what are the worst of its horrors?

Umm, well ... it's 2000 pages. That's too long! "Nothing good has ever come of a 2000-page bill." Actually, as Chris Beam pointed out in 2009 in Slate, lengthy bills have become fairly common in recent years as the number of bills Congress passes has declined. George W. Bush's budget bill, Beam noted, was 1,482 pages. I don't recall conservatives getting exercised about that.

What else have you got, Ann?

"A governor can't repeal or expand the federal tax break given to companies that pay their employees' health insurance premiums--a tax break denied the self-employed and self-insured."

That's correct. Nor can a governor require the IRS to give tax deductions to individual health savings accounts. Nor can a governor repeal a 1946 federal law requiring hospitals to take all comers. These are all actual objections that Coulter raises; for some reason, she doesn't complain that governors can't repeal Obamacare, the ostensible topic of her essay.

Is it really necessary to explain to Coulter that governors are not permitted to alter federal laws in general? Nor may they declare war on a foreign power. Those powers are reserved for federal officials. (Incidentally, the IRS already exempts health savings accounts, so I don't understand what Coulter's beef with that is.) It was about this point in the op-ed when I realized that, say what you will about Coulter, you can't accuse her of relying on talking points fed her by the Romney campaign. Even they wouldn't have served up arguments quite this nonsensical.

To whatever extent Romneycare is bad, it's the fault of changes wrought by Massachusetts Democrats over Romney's objections. They set the threshold for receiving a subsidy at the median income, thereby committing "redistribution of income. For more on this policy, see 'Marx, Karl.'"

Coulter thinks the threshold should have excluded all but the poor. But wouldn't that be income redistribution too?

Also, the Democrats added to Romney's "no frills" list of things that Romneycare must cover some other items. This was pandering to lobbyists. "For more on 'pandering' and 'lobbyists,' see 'Gingrich, Newt.'" I take this cheap shot as a wink to conservative readers who might otherwise conclude that Coulter takes her policy argument seriously. In fact, she's just doing what needs to be done to clear Romney's path to Tampa.

Coulter next addresses a rococo argument by Rick Santorum: Romney should have known his bill would get messed up by Massachusetts Democrats, and therefore shouldn't have crafted any health care bill at all. Coulter dismisses this as stupid, which it is. "Democrats could use a sunny day as an excuse to destroy the free market, redistribute income and pander to lobbyists. Does that mean Republicans should never try to reform anything and start denouncing sunny days?" I don't endorse Coulter's caricature of Democrats, nor her assumption that Democrats messed up Romneycare, but her larger point is sound. You can't blame Romney for things he didn't do.

Finally, Coulter has some non sequiter about how Democrats dismantled welfare reform in the 2009 by encouraging the states to help low-income families weather the recession. This was a big conservative battle cry at the time, but in 2010 Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution (who was one of the bill's Republican authors) was complaining (in that left-wing rag, Bloomberg Businessweek) that welfare rolls were going down even as unemployment was on the rise. In any event, welfare reform has nothing to do with Romneycare.

Predictably, Coulter is taking some heavy strafing from her fellow conservatives, who still can't reconcile their loathing of Romneycare with the very high probability that Mitt Romney will be their presidential candidate. In the Washington Examiner Philip Klein calls Coulter's piece "shameful." On the American Spectator's blog, W. James Antle III writes that Coulter "doesn't appear to realize is how useful her column will be to defenders of Obamacare."

David Frum defends her in the Daily Beast, but he's an apostate, and anyway, he doesn't address her paper-thin partisan distinctions between Obamacare and Romneycare. The parts of Coulter's column that Frum liked are the same parts I liked. Frum's position on Obamacare is "mend it don't end it." Unlike Coulter, Frum apparently recognizes that you can't be violently opposed to Obamacare while you're trying to put its author in the White House. If more Republicans thought more like Frum they'd have a much better chance of winning back the presidency in November. Thank goodness they don't.

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