On Health Care, 'Obstructionist' Charge a Big Miss
As ObamaCare’s prospects continue to sink, there’s a lot of blame going around. Although Democrats hold such huge majorities that votes from congressional Republicans shouldn’t be needed for the legislation’s passage, a few Republican “ayes” would certainly help -- especially since the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has made it clear it can’t be counted on to vote in favor of the bill either.
But despite the obvious rifts among the Democrats, it seems to be better politics to blame the other party. As a result, much Democratic commentary involves the castigation of Republicans for what’s characterized as their stubborn rejection of the administration’s “bipartisan” outreach on the issue of health care reform.
Democratic Party leaders and Obama have an odd notion of legislative bipartisanship, however. The term used to mean the crafting of a bill with input from both sides and almost invariably involved concessions that would include the dropping of provisions either side found too extreme. But the new definition of bipartisanship seems to be: "We get to write a controversial bill exactly the way we want to, and you get to say ‘yes’ to it."
ObamaCare as it currently stands -- especially with the inclusion of the public option -- is not just any old bill that Republicans are reflexively fighting just for the sake of throwing a monkey wrench into the Democrats' works. It is far more radical than that; many of its proposals go against the basic principles for which the Republican Party stands. And even though in recent years that party hasn't always acted as though those principles were at all important, they still do mean something.
But it's rare to hear Democrats (with the exception of the more moderate Blue Dogs and their supporters) admit that there could be any valid principle at all behind the Republican opposition.
Typical of the Democrat Party line -- expressed in this piece by Salon's Thomas Schaller -- is the characterization of Republican objections to ObamaCare as "the reflexive Republican biting of Obama's extended hand." It's difficult to know how much of this simplistic picture of Republicans as purely and nakedly obstructionist is a deeply held belief on the part of liberals and the left, and how much is mere rhetoric to fire up the base.
Whichever it may be, Democrats are certainly fond of characterizing Republicans as being "the party of no," a catchy phrase that has sometimes seemed true. The charge is correct on the subject of the public option on health care; Republicans have indeed voiced a loud and resounding “no” to it. At the same time, Republicans have hardly been united in offering the "yes" of a coherent alternative to ObamaCare, although various proposals have been floated.
But there's a difference between a "no" for the sake of obstructionist opposition and one that happens to align with sincere conviction. Republicans are certainly political animals, and there's no doubt that many of them are motivated at least in part by a strong desire to frustrate the plans of Obama and the Democrats. But in the case of their opposition to the current health care reform bill, their refusal to support it has the added characteristic of being ideologically consistent with their long-held and oft-stated belief in less government control, as well as being popular with their constituents and the majority of the American people.
Most people can see that. It is for this reason that Democrat accusations that Republican objections are merely obstructionist in nature don't sound very convincing, except perhaps to the Democrat choir.
For example, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is quoted as saying, "The Republican leadership has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama's health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day." It's a neat little sound bite, made to order for the left-wing of the Democratic Party. It's got all the proper elements: Republicans motivated by negativity, vindictiveness, and a hunger for power, aware that ObamaCare would solve the health insurance problems of America but nevertheless callously rejecting it. Oh, if only those Republicans weren't so mean and ornery!
The only problem is that it's unlikely to persuade most moderate Americans, the very people Obama and Pelosi and Reid will need to convince of the wisdom of ObamaCare and the public option in order to gain the support of those moderate Democrats in Congress whose votes are required to pass the bill. Moderate Americans themselves (much like Republicans) tend to be understandably and sincerely wary of an increase in government intrusion into a matter as personal and central as health care choice, and tend to be more inclined to credit Republicans with a similar sincerity when they oppose it.
Emanuel may indeed be so deeply cynical about Republicans that he truly believes they have no principles other than their own selfish drive for power and the need to favor the special interest groups that reward them financially (although come to think of it, the same description could fit Emanuel at least as well as it would his opponents). But if Emanuel and other Democratic leaders truly believe their own rhetoric about Republican opposition to the current health care reform plan, they are committing the cardinal error of discounting an argument of substance that resonates with a great many thinking Americans.
What’s the origin of this error? Perhaps Democrats are not eager to debate their case on the merits. After all, ad hominem arguments are easier, so why bother? Perhaps they think the American people are so stupid they could not understand their arguments if they did mount them -- or perhaps they think they’d understand them only too well and find them wanting. Or perhaps Democrats are so convinced that big government is the answer to the health care problems we face that they fail to credit that anyone could genuinely see it otherwise.
There are some very good reasons to be cynical about politics and politicians, both on the left and on the right. But utter cynicism about the opposition is not always a good ploy. Sometimes it means you underestimate the other side, and this can be a fatal miscalculation.