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The Republican Pretext


On June 17, Rep. Roy Blunt made a promise: "I guarantee you we will provide you with a [health care] bill." The "we" in that sentence referred to the House Republicans. But they've not united around a bill. Glenn Thrush sat down with Rep. Eric Cantor, a member of the House leadership, to ask why. In an amusingly Freudian slip, Cantor explained that Republicans have decided on a different tack: they're going to offer a "pretext," not a proposal. I bet they will.

Accidental honesty aside, the political argument is pretty clear: If Republicans eschew a bill, then all they have to do is attack. If they propose one, they also have to defend. And Kevin Drum explains the difficulty with that:

Cantor's problem is obvious: He can't provide a full-scale Republican plan because it's simply not possible to provide universal coverage without the government taking a big role in things. So he's stuck. Ditto for things like climate change, which for some reason I was reminded about by this post from libertarian Matt Welch. I mean, suppose you accepted that climate change was both real and catastrophic. What options would you have if you insisted on sticking solely to free market principles? Beats me. Hell, it's hard enough to address even if you don't. But that's where we are these days: an awful lot of our most pressing problems simply can't be solved unless you accept that the government has to be involved. So conservatives are stuck.

Unless they can offer up a pretext, of course.

Photo credit: By Alexa Welch Edlund -- Richmond Times-Dispatch

By Ezra Klein  |  September 25, 2009; 5:00 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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"But they've not united around a bill."

Nor has anyone else, of course.

Posted by: tomtildrum | September 25, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

There have been numerous bills put forward, but they've all been spiked by Pelosi or Democrat committee chairmen. See:

Posted by: mike_w_long | September 25, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Isn't that a photograph of Cantor doing some sort of 3 card monte con?

Posted by: bdballard | September 25, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

The Republican health care plans include such things as lowering corporate taxes and tax credits to buy insurance. Neither idea will do anything to solve the problems of health care accessibility and high costs.

Republicans simply do not want health care reform. Any plan they might propose will be the same old conservative ideology in a new wrapper. The last election showed us what the country thinks about conservative ideology.

Democrats should stop giving Republicans any deference and get on with providing health care for all with a strong public option.

Posted by: scampiris | September 25, 2009 7:22 PM | Report abuse

Where's Obama's bill?

Is it the Baucus bill, with mandates and fines and jail time?

THAT's the Obama bill?

Posted by: auntmo9990 | September 26, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

And while we're asking where things are, where is the ghoulish Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel? Despite this blog's attempts to make a joke out of his eugenicist leanings (let the young and fit survive, and others, well, take that little red pain pill) I see the admin. has pulled him. He is never on tv or in the news anymore. That was a smart move.

Posted by: truck1 | September 26, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

(1) I think the Republicans are in a cul-de-sac. They have an ECONOMIC intellectual problem that has led to a POLITICAL rhetorical problem. It was programmed in the days of Reagan, though people thought they were headed to success. It is possible to describe what's going on, but I'm not sure what they can do about it:

The Republicans' ECONOMIC problem is that they don't see that the system is getting so complicated that new costs are being incurred by everyone. They think that markets will sort it all out, and the devil take the hindmost.

Is government too big? The correct answer is, "Nobody knows." We have blackboard equations that suggest it might be big, but these may not apply to a market country the size of the U.S., with a cultural history of individual initiative.

Take the opposite possibility: Why might government have to get bigger? Because the whole economic system may become qualitatively different due to growth. The system could get so big that it could cause more social transaction costs and environmental problems. In economics, this is something like "network effects of negative externalities plus rational ignorance." These things would cut into private initiative -- therefore clear and concise government remedies could have a good effect on further economic growth.

Look at the economics of healthcare. There are a couple of simple textbook economic reasons why it won't work as a completely free market: (a) the "distribution of income" and (b) monopoly or "monopolistic competition" among the suppliers. (Analysts sometimes start with a third and in my opinion minor one, the presence of "asymmetric information" in the insurance market, which could be solved.) In normal language, (a) poor people can't afford health insurance, and (b) some part of the cost growth is out of control (and the other part of the cost growth is natural, and should be welcomed as a major growth industry.)

Is government TOO SMALL? Could be. We know it is bigger as a share of GDP. But is it bigger as a share of GDP adjusted for the standard-of-living reflected in the better quality of goods and services? I would bet government is SHRINKING compared to a measure such as this. (If you say this is an improper measure, note that Republicans themselves use it to explain why the growing gap in the distribution of income is no real problem: because the poor have qualitatively better goods and services than before.)

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | September 26, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

(2) To continue, the Republicans' POLITICAL problems proceed from these things. It has started to skew many of their arguments beyond reality. Bruce Bartlett notes the "starve the beast" strategy for tax cuts to force down government spending (which translates to, "Let's cause a budget crisis, and make OTHER people figure out what to do about it.") You can also see it in their kneejerk denial of the global warming scenario.

This political rhetorical problem is two-part: On the one hand, their problem is that the Democrats are NOT against the market economy, in fact they earn quite well in markets, but the Democrats realize that market solutions don't always work. So the Republicans must keep arguing that the Democrats are socialist in principle, when this obviously isn't true.

And on the other hand, the Republicans must continue to defend pure market solutions, although the indicators since Reagan have been getting worse in several ways. Their only alternative is to blame government for this (as we see now, in the debates over the financial crisis and healthcare.) Now of course there are always government policies that cause their own problems and ought to be changed. So this is where the Republicans' rhetorical inroad starts; it is where they have been hanging their hats. But a familiarity with U.S. history shows that we have always favored markets first, and that the government has always been brought in afterward, for corrections. Getting government out won't solve the problems. (And of course, government sometimes is the only thing with enough clout to seed certain kinds of economic innovations.)

Consider healthcare reform. The Republicans have boxed themselves into a dilemma: they are damned if they do, and damned if they don't. You can see it the faces on the Senate Finance Committee. If they go along with it, they are handing a huge political win to Obama and the Democrats. If they go against it, some form of it is going to be passed anyway, and so the Republicans must set themselves the daunting task of a long-term policy struggle to fight every little bit of it in the future -- at the same time as it reduces costs and becomes a necessity to the voters. (Indeed most of the Teaparty Cheapskates will run to the public insurance choice or "public option," if and when it becomes available to them.)

It appears that the Republicans have chosen to go against it, and this must dispirit them greatly, because I would guess that over half the Republican Senators secretly believe that there should be massive healthcare reform, (the present system may begin to hamper U.S. global competitiveness,) and indeed that there should even be a public option -- no one can be immune to the display of immorality that is demonstrated by coverage rescission and denial.

To make it politically even worse for them: The long-term budget deficit probably goes down on the day Obama signs the bill.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | September 26, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

(3) For short conclusion: the Republican economic ideology has imploded, and their politics are in a no-win situation, stretched over a barrel. The Republicans are headed into a political minority for 20 to 30 years unless they shape up.

It is no longer possible for either party to control the national message via one-way media -- Fox has become a laughingstock; the townhall protests have been revealed as mostly the health insurers' attempts at anti-reform propaganda -- and the Internet has improved our national conversation by magnitudes of fact, speed and nuance.

What remains? The Republicans have to hope that Obama and the Democrats overreach, so they can start winning back Congressional districts. (They will be naturally aided in this, because the country surged Democratic and is likely to recede a little bit anyway.) The Democrats on the other hand should always be clear about where markets work and where they do not -- and by doing so, barring the unforeseen foreign policy debacle, they will gain a political ascendancy lasting a generation or more.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | September 26, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

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