The Fox News/David Brooks tag team
Jon Chait points out an important dynamic here:
Obviously, delaying the Cadillac tax increases its political vulnerability to some degree. But I wonder why Brooks and Douthat can so casually blame Obama for this change. Unions argued against the tax on the grounds that their members had foregone wage hikes in order to obtain expensive health insurance. Providing a short-term reprieve for health plans obtained through collective bargaining was a reasonable way to keep most of the bite of the tax in place while accommodating those concerns. Alternatively, Democrats could have stiffed the unions if a few Republicans stepped forward to support the bill in exchange for tough cost control measures that Obama clearly wanted. But none would do that. It's impossible to pass health care reform without the support of labor unions or any Republican member of Congress.
The saga of the Cadillac tax is a useful example of the ways conservatives have attacked health care reform with mutually reinforcing highbrow-lowbrow attacks. Conservative politicians attack death panels and rationing and higher taxes. The conservative pundits who recognize the dishonesty of these claims may cluck their tongues a bit, but they don't put any meaningful pressure on Republican politicians to cut it out. Then the Democrats have to reduce their exposure to the lowbrow conservative attacks, which hit home with the public, by cutting back on the sacrifice in the bill. This in turn makes them vulnerable to the highbrow attacks.
To make a related point, this is one of those legislative problems that ending the filibuster won't fix. Neither party is really able to vote for the other party's major initiatives. That means you lose the biggest advantage of bipartisan deals: votes that are in hock to totally different special interest groups and constituencies. For instance: The Civil Rights Act was a compromise between Northern Republicans and non-Southern Democrats. But if it was passed today, it'd be a compromise between Democrats and Southern Democrats, and the bill would be terrible.
As for the broader political point, David Brooks is having a weird year. If you read his columns, it really is the case that he is much more in agreement with the Obama White House than with most members of his party or most members of the Democratic Party. But he's still got his tribal loyalties, as we all do. He's handled that tension by attacking Obama for deviating from the conservative things Obama wants to do and Brooks wants him to do but that Obama can't find any conservative votes for.
The excise tax is a good example. Rather than praising Obama for protecting the excise tax against unions, House Democrats, and Senate liberals and hammering Republicans for refusing to give Obama the three or four or five votes he'd need to keep that tax strong (or better yet, replace it with a cap on the employer exclusion for health-care benefits), Brooks attacked Obama for making the concessions that kept the excise tax in the bill. That doesn't make much sense, given that Brooks supports the excise tax and Obama is protecting the excise tax. But it makes a lot of sense if Brooks is groping for a way to disagree with a White House that he inconveniently agrees with.
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