How Republicans Blew It

by Jonathan Chait | March 21, 2010

From the standpoint of short-term political strategy, the Republicans have played their cards perfectly. Their slow withdrawal of any support excised the maximum political damage by forcing all Senate Democrats to agree, rendering the bill partisan and subjecting it to months of slow-bleed legislative wrangling. The Republicans will probably pick up more seats in November than they would have if they had pursued a bipartisan accord.

But the policy costs have been significant. As I wrote last December, "The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they've been dealt will last for decades." David Frum chimes in, "Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now."

The funny thing is that this policy disaster was avoidable for Republicans. Many Senate Democrats started the debate believing that a bipartisan accord was the only morally legitimate path to major legislative change, and desperately hoping for bipartisan cover as they undertook wrenching change to the status quo. If they had put a compromise bill on the table, moderate Democrats would have leaped at the offer, and it would have taken just one Democrat to make such a deal and kill comprehensive reform.

The Republicans had another chance last month when President Obama convened a bipartisan health care summit. If some Republicans had come forward with a meet-you-halfway plan, or even meet-you-quarter-way plan, Democrats would have been in a bind. They let the opportunity pass. Why? Frum writes:

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

The Republican strategy of total opposition instead forced the Democrats into an all-or-nothing choice of passing a comprehensive bill or collapsing into catastrophic defeat. (Republicans tried desperately to convince them that letting the bill die was their best political strategy, but Democrats wisely rejected this awful advice.)  Let me be clear: I'm glad they did it. I'm willing to accept higher Democratic losses in exchange for a health care bill that really solves the pathologies of the health care market. The Republican strategy was an audacious gamble, and it could have worked, but it came up empty. Thank goodness.

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