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Tilting at Windmills

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November 22, 2008

THE RIGHT, HEALTHCARE, AND POLITICAL SURVIVAL.... Hilzoy had a great overnight item that I wanted to add one observation to.

U.S. News' James Pethokoukis and Cato's Michael Cannon believe that if Obama is successful in passing a national healthcare plan, Americans will not only like it, but will reward Democrats for having passed it. As a result, Pethokoukis and Cannon conclude, conservatives need to block the reform effort, whether it's a good idea or not.

I'd just add that a certain leading conservative sketched out the exact same position 15 years ago. His name is Bill Kristol.

It's largely faded from memory, but I'd argue one of the more important moments in the debate over the Clinton healthcare plan in the early 1990s came when Kristol distributed a memo to congressional Republicans in December 1993.

Leading conservative operative William Kristol privately circulates a strategy document to Republicans in Congress. Kristol writes that congressional Republicans should work to "kill" -- not amend -- the Clinton plan because it presents a real danger to the Republican future: Its passage will give the Democrats a lock on the crucial middle-class vote and revive the reputation of the party. Nearly a full year before Republicans will unite behind the "Contract With America," Kristol has provided the rationale and the steel for them to achieve their aims of winning control of Congress and becoming America's majority party. Killing health care will serve both ends. The timing of the memo dovetails with a growing private consensus among Republicans that all-out opposition to the Clinton plan is in their best political interest. (emphasis added)

Today, the circumstances are slightly different -- Democrats are in good shape and don't need their reputation "revived" -- but with the Pethokoukis and Cannon analyses in mind, history may repeat itself.

Remember, for Kristol then and Pethokoukis/Cannon now, it's not about the quality of the policy -- it's about political survival. If Democrats deliver, they'll be positioned to win over a generation of voters. Blocking (or "killing") a reform effort may undermine the public's needs, but it would also block Democrats from winning a historic victory.

With that in mind, the right will likely aggressively resist healthcare reform because, as a matter of electoral strategy, conservatives probably don't have a choice.

Steve Benen 8:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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This is a minor quibble on an excellent blog, but this bugs me: When linking to a quote -- especially a long blockquote -- it would be nice if the author put a small hint of what the source is, rather than forcing one to follow the link. In this case, I had to figure from context that you were not quoting Kristol's memo (which is what, in my opinion, the context implied), but were rather referencing a PBS timeline of the Clinton health care battles, written some indeterminate time after the events. It doesn't seem to be that hard to have said, "... when Kristol distributed a memo to congressional Republicans in December 1993 (as analyzed in a later PBS timeline):..."

Posted by: Bernard Gilroy on November 22, 2008 at 8:14 AM | PERMALINK

Shorter Billy Kristol:

"Ask not what you can do for your country but what you can do for the survival of the Republican Party."

Posted by: Shag from Brookline on November 22, 2008 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

...and this is why I will never vote for a republican.

value of politics of policy...cynicism at the highest level.

I really believe in a 2-party system, but if one of the parties is these jokers, I guess we're better off with the R's having as little power as possible.

Posted by: john d'oh on November 22, 2008 at 8:28 AM | PERMALINK

What a bunch of shortsighted idiots. Instead of pretending like there isn't a problem and stonewalling Democratic attempts to solve it, they need to get in front of the problem and show a conservative solution to it. Instead of worrying about how voters will reward Democrats for years into the future, they should propose a way to get those rewards and that goodwill for themselves. They had control of the government for years, and even under Clinton if they'd stepped forward with a solution he would have signed on - Clinton would have snapped at any kind of solution to the healthcare issue.

But no. Instead they just obstruct and hope that people stay angry at the Democrats who can't get a solution past the Republicans. Left unsaid is the assumption that the public are a bunch of idiots who won't respond to the fact that "Obstructionist Republicans" are preventing anything from getting done.

(Of course it's completely possible that modern conservatism has got nothing as far as solutions to the health care problem in this county goes. But that would be the indication of a useless political philosophy that needs to be revised to deal with modern problems. Still not an excuse to be a bunch of obstructionist idiots for solutions that people actually need.)

Posted by: NonyNony on November 22, 2008 at 8:29 AM | PERMALINK

One impediment to Republican obstructionism is the fact that Obama kept his email list and he knows how to use it. He will also be putting up a YouTube version of his weekly radio address. In the past the media rarely mentioned Republicans blocking one bill or another, preferring to paint it as "Democrats lose vote." Obama will not be so shy. Yes, Republicans fear Democratic success and, yes, they'll be obstructionist bastards. This time, having the media as a co-conspirator won't be of as much help to them.

Posted by: Dennis-SGMM on November 22, 2008 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps they could cooperate instead? Wouldn't that help them? I fear that instead we'll get pretend to cooperate while really undermining. That means the PR battle will be really, really important and conservatives have been very good at getting their message out.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope on November 22, 2008 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

I stumbled across that US News article last night and had way too much fun beating up on the jackass who wrote it. He cites Kling as an authority??? As I said in my rant - the only person more ridiculous than Kling is a person who would cite Kling with a straight face!

Posted by: Blue Girl on November 22, 2008 at 8:52 AM | PERMALINK

This is not surprising at all - but they will HAVE to suggest their own plan this time. The American people want this problem to be solved, and they are starting to suspect that there is a solution. I don't think they will be fooled again so easily.

Posted by: smoof on November 22, 2008 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

We got the votes, they don't. Move the question. If Harry Reid won't blow up the filibuster with Biden in the chair, replace him,

Posted by: JMG on November 22, 2008 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

The Democrats should frame it the other way 'round -- Blocking reform may block Democrats from winning a historic victory, but it would also undermine the public's needs.

Once again, the GOP subordinates the nation's well-being to their own political power. ("Country first," my eye.)

This time, though, industries like the automakers are so desperate to offload health care costs that they may not back the Reptiles or even actively oppose them. We'll see.

Posted by: Gregory on November 22, 2008 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

From Families USA:
"In 2002, the Institute of Medicine released a groundbreaking report, Care without Coverage: Too Little, Too Late, which estimated that 18,000 adults nationwide died in 2000 because they did not have health insurance. Subsequently, The Urban Institute estimated that 22,000 adults died in 2006 because they did not have health insurance."

Families USA has a state-by-state breakdown of the consequences of people without health insurance. In Mayland in 2006, 450 people died early.


And the Republicans claim to be the party that considers human life to be sacred? 22,000 people is the equivalent of seven World Trade Center --each year!

Let's beat them over the head with this with that every time they bring up "socialized medicine".

Posted by: SteveT on November 22, 2008 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

Instead of pretending like there isn't a problem and stonewalling Democratic attempts to solve it, they need to get in front of the problem and show a conservative solution to it. Instead of worrying about how voters will reward Democrats for years into the future, they should propose a way to get those rewards and that goodwill for themselves.

The Reptiles have had since 1994 to do so and recall that then, they deliberately refused to provide an alternative; they just opposed (contrast that to the disingenuous calls for the Democrats' "plan" to fix social security; calls the Dems wisely -- for once -- ignored).

Now, it's true that the GOP has a philisophical objection to government programs that address the needs of middle class Americans. But I think it's safe to say that if the Republicans had a solution, we'd have seen it by now. This messed-up status quo is the way the GOP wants it.

Posted by: Gregory on November 22, 2008 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

When the GOP start throwing out the usual bullshit fear tactics, people need to start thinking, "Wow, where would we be if the Clinton healthcare plan had been allowed to survive?" I'm positive it would be a much brighter, happier place.

If the GOP rejects bipartisanship, then the Dems need to put the fear of NOT passing healthcare into the hearts and minds of the American people and show that the GOP is the primary roadblock.

Posted by: bdop4 on November 22, 2008 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

This isn't nearly as scandalous as it appears, as most Republicans oppose on principle any expansion of the welfare state. All Kristol and these US News guys were/are really saying is that you won't get much political benefit for voting against your principles.

That said, I think it's probably bad advice this time around. The rationale was always institutional: the party would get no credit for the passage of health care reform, but individual Republicans very well might in their own races (and might be blamed as well for their votes against). Kristol was arguing for individual Republicans to forego some individual votes so that the party might be stronger in the long term. With the GOP in the ascent and votes to spare, that probably made sense. But with the party in its nadir, surely it's every man for himself now.

Posted by: kth on November 22, 2008 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

The Pethokoukis/Cannon strategy that Republicans will need to block desperately needed healthcare reform to forestall political rewards at the election booth is a failed tactic. Democrats will win simply by putting an earnest effort forth to address the issue.

Blocking healthcare reform is as winning a strategy as Newt shutting down the government twice: instead of rewarding Democrats for their reforms, voters will opt to punish Republicans for their obstructionism. Either way, Republicans lose.

If Republicans want to win votes, how about proposing an even better fix than the Democrats. Pethokoukis/Cannon's concept is the recipe for a permanent Republican minority, which at this point will be a good thing for this nation.

Posted by: petorado on November 22, 2008 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

Given their minority status, the only way the Republicans can block a Democratic plan is with a filibuster in the Senate. If Obama has a plan, a large majority in the House, and 57 or 58 votes in the Senate and 40 or 42 Republicans there block the whole thing they will lose even more seats in Congress. Their 2010 strategy will be trying to hold the Dems to 65 seats in the Senate.

The Republicans best choice is to try to add value to whatever plan Obama presents. Opposition won't work.

Posted by: tomeck on November 22, 2008 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

The conservatives were right.

Obama is a Marxist. Marx predicted a revolution of the proletariat after they were beaten down severely enough by the bourgeois.

Even if they survive again. There's just to darn many proles (middle class.) It's a game of attrition. In the long run, they cannot win. Conservatives do not tell their followers that Marx did not rule out democracy being the tool by which the masses will prevail.

Many of those people will be quite bewildered that the socialists they feared so much are actually rather benign.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on November 22, 2008 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

You write: "It's largely faded from memory, but I'd argue one of the more important moments in the debate over the Clinton healthcare plan in the early 1990s came when Kristol distributed a memo to congressional Republicans in December 1993."

Agreed. With this caveat: the Democrats had majorities in both the House and the Senate and could have passed some version of the Clinton health care plan if they had stayed united.

Once again, by the way, we see the Republican Party revealed for what it has become: an agent of national destruction. "Country First," my a*#!

When one thinks that the Republican Party started out as the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower... Nixon set the party on an evil path with his "Southern strategy," which played to the worst aspects of our history. Ronald Reagan sealed Republican fate when he proclaimed that "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." As our Founding Fathers realized when they wrote the Constitution, a nation cannot long exist without an effective government (and a great nation cannot be created and continued without -- dare I say it -- a great system of government). Today's Republican Party is a threat to this nation's future well-being.

Posted by: CMcC on November 22, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

I'd agree, kind of.

This time around the Republicans don't have the same kind of firepower they had in '93.

The plan at its broadest strokes has bipartisan support, and the legislature will be drafting the bill, not some adjunct committee to the president. 1.2 million people lost their jobs and the prospect of living without health insurance. That's an awful big number and an awful lot of political will to make something happen. That simply didn't exist last time we took our shot.

The Arlen Specters of the world know that if they help shoot down a proposal that's polling as well as 'health care reform' and get it pinned on them, they're toast next election.

Will they try some tax credit nonsense? Yup.

Will they try some 'anyone who wants to buy insurnace will be able to buy insurance, for...well we'll figure that out later' malarkey? Oh god yes.

But straight up take their very small ball and go home? Not likely. It'd be one thing if they could win it on an up or down vote like they did in '93. I remember being 13 and watching the vote. Not a single member of their party voted for the bill. Not one. A bunch of democrats joined in. That's a lot different from using lame and non-constitutionally granted procedural rules to block a vote in the Senate on a bill that the President of the free world wants to sign. It just doesn't work politically. It looks very week.

Bush didn't use them a lot, because, well, he was awful at them, but the President can have a press conference every day if he wanted that gets covered live on cable news, covered that night on network news, and talked about by every pundit on TV that night.

Youtube is nice but it doesn't really mean shit.

Posted by: mark r on November 22, 2008 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

This puts the Obama/Reid cave-in on Joe lieberman into a new light for me.

As much as what Joe did this year deserves a lot more penalty than he got, the health care fight is clearly going to be truly knock-down and drag-out one. Essentially it's 1993 all over again. If the Democrats pass universal health care then the national Republican party will be relegated to the minority for a generation and they know it. So we can expect them to pull out all the stops to kill any health care bill.

Since these will be party line votes with heavy party discipline, it may have been a significant reason why Harry Reid and Barack Obama were willing to put up with Joe Lieberman's election campaign crap and leave him in as committee chairman just to make sure he did not bolt to the Republican Party. If Norm Coleman wins in Minnesota and Saxby Chambliss wins in Georgia, then the Democrats will almost certainly have to pull over two Republicans to defeat a filibuster by the Republican. On a party line vote, that will be difficult enough.

As a Democrat, Lieberman is almost certainly a reliable vote to break a filibuster on this subject. That means Harry Reid only has to get two Republicans to break ranks - difficult but not impossible.

But if Joe went to the Republican caucus, or resigned and was replaced by a Republican Senator, then Harry Reid will need three Republican cross-overs. Paying off Joe to keep him in the caucus is a lot easier than getting that third Republican cross over.

As disgusting as the Lieberman solution was, it looks like Harry Reid and Barack Obama knew what they were doing with Joe Lieberman. Joe probably also knows.

Sausage-making and politics. Neither are pretty.

Posted by: Rick B on November 22, 2008 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

Many of those people will be quite bewildered that the socialists they feared so much are actually rather benign.

Not here in Texas. We have too many Republicans who see the populace through "Red-colored" glasses. Several years ago we had one city councilman in one of the suburbs go to a yard with Democratic campaign signs up two days before the 60-days before the election specified in local ordinance and tear down the signs in front of the neighbors.

When the police arrived he pointed out - in front of a reporter - that the signs violated the local ordnance and that they shouldn't be allowed to put up those Communist signs anyway.

His actions were extreme but his ideas represent what a whole lot of Texas Republicans really believe. Nothing they see or hear that contradicts their John Birch or Evangelical type beliefs will have any effect on them.

The ordnance was, I think, liberalized after that.

Posted by: Rick B on November 22, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

A totally unpatriotic idea. Whats the party for - itself or the country?
And some Repubs wonder why the Dems have POTUS, the Senate and the House........
Get some patriotism, get a clue, be an AMERICAN.

Posted by: Rich B on November 22, 2008 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

This is a double bind for the Repubs. If they fight health care they self identify as being against the needs of Americans who are going to be in increasingly dire straights. If they work with the Dems, they admit they can't provide what this country really needs. That's kind of simplistic, but that's how I see the overall narrative. The third way - a genuine reassessment of what Republicans really stand for in a rapidly changing world - doesn't appear likely. Another, more likely option might be to steal the Dem's basic ideas, repackage them with some subtle and key (read: highly profitable) changes, and claim ownership. Then aggressively push their relabeled product even as they refuse to support the Dem plan. I think they'll tend towards something along the lines of the last option. Otherwise, if they toe the hardcore line OR fall in with the Dems, they will indeed further marginalize themselves and their Party (such as it is) for many, many years.

From another perspective, perhaps in an Obama led paradigm shift there will be room for the voice of conservatism, even the fading radical reactionary-ism of BushCo. If one feels heard, one is far less likely to dig one's heels in. Kind of fluffy, I know, but not outside the realm of possibility.

note: when I say "them" I refer to Bush-style "movement conservatives," not Republicans or conservatives with soul or conscience, or any emergence of a more thoughtful and aware conservatism.

Posted by: Conrad's Ghost on November 22, 2008 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

I assume Republicans run the risk of being caught out by the public and the media, further tarnishing their character and reputation. Democrats should be smart in making sure that, if this is the case, one should never stop talking about how the Republicans blocked this and that for their own political survival, rather than the best interest of the public. It would be condemning

Posted by: Hans on November 22, 2008 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

Just remember this rule: What ever the repuglicans say PUBLICLY that they are against, they do. Whatever they say PUBLICLY they are for, the act against.

Remember the "humbler foreign policy"? Remember "small government"? Fiscal responsibility? Family values? (teen pregnancy, anti-gay crusader tapping in toilet stalls).

It's less that repugs believe that gov doesn't work (even as they blog on the government created internet), it's more that they actively cause government to malfunction by staffing it with meritless toadies (remember Katrina?).

Now, think about how they accuse liberals of "treason" ... while stoking crowds to violently hate Obama.

I'd love a party of fiscal conservatives to balance out excess on the other side, but the Repuglicans need to go out of business.

Posted by: GaryB on November 22, 2008 at 5:05 PM | PERMALINK

Just more evidence that Republicans are the ones who are truly "Anti-American." They do not care about the American people at all.

Posted by: Marvin Music on November 22, 2008 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

this is nonsense. republicans opposed nationalized health care on principle before, and it'll be opposed on principle again. government run health care will always be lower quality/higher cost. if you rely on government handouts you're going to support the party that represents the source of those handouts. kristol's point is no more complicated than that.

Posted by: nofreelunch on November 22, 2008 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

Wow dude that is pretty neat.


Posted by: Jack WOods on November 23, 2008 at 12:05 AM | PERMALINK

The republicans will oppose any health plan Obama puts forth regardless, because they figure it will cost them and will take away at least some of their power, the power of the AMA, big pharma and big insurance HMOs. They are against anything and everything if it is "for the people" as they consider it "welfare" and "socialist." Call it socialism if you will, but with the prohibitive high costs of health care, health insurance and pharmacuticals, maybe it's time for a pinch (or more) of "socialism!"

Posted by: nikolai on November 24, 2008 at 12:59 AM | PERMALINK

Very interesting

Posted by: John on November 24, 2008 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK



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