Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 3, 2009

THE IGNORED, LONELY CONSERVATIVE WONKS.... About a month ago, I recommended breaking up opponents of health care reform into several groups, because they're not all driven by the same motivations. We have The Greedy (who profit for the status quo's failings), The Partisans (who want to deny Democrats a historic policy victory); The Tin-Foil Hats (who are paranoid, delusional conspiracy theorists), and The Dupes (well-intention folks who've been misled by the professional liars from the other groups).

There is, however, a tiny fifth category: The Wonks. These are conservatives who actually care about substantive policy details, have read the proposals, and believe there are better ways to improve the system. I think they're mistaken, but The Wonks are at least worth engaging in debate.

The New York Times reports today on their existence.

Far from embracing the attacks, many leading conservative health care policy experts said in recent interviews that the dynamic was precluding a more robust real-world debate while making it nearly impossible for them to inject their studied, free-market solutions into the discussions.

And they said the focus on what they consider misleading or secondary issues was getting in the way of real questions about the plan they believed worthy of consideration.

"There are serious questions that are associated with policy aspects of the health care reform bills that we're seeing," said Gail Wilensky, a veteran health care expert who oversaw the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs for the first President George Bush and advised Senator John McCain in his presidential campaign last year.

Their conservative allies, however, don't want to hear "serious questions." They want to spout nonsense, conspiracy theories, bogus scare tactics, and obvious lies -- because they're convinced that's what wins.

And for all I know, they're probably right. If the political world had an honest, serious debate, in which credible experts explored real-world solutions, chances are very good progressive reform advocate would win. When it comes to health care and the broken system, the facts just aren't on conservatives' side. Indeed, the NYT piece noted some of the conflicts among conservative wonks who realize that a) they want to cut costs from the health care system; b) the most effective ways to save money in the system come from centralized, government decision-making; and c) they're against centralized, government decision-making.

So, The Wonks don't get invited to Tea Parties or onto Fox News. They don't write nutty pieces for the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Their opinions are not sought out by Republican policymakers.

Instead, we're left with liars and fools, spreading propaganda and nonsense, leaving us with a discourse unbefitting our democracy. It's a shame the voice of the opposition is stark raving mad, and the idea of an enlightened debate is a naive daydream.

Steve Benen 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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Well, you know as Reagan said, if Medicare passes “In your sunset years, you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren what life was like when men were free.”

I can't believe saying crap like that works. But it does.

Posted by: Tom on September 3, 2009 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK


/capslock: unleash the fury

Posted by: morganstern on September 3, 2009 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

By the way, has anyone else noticed that Obama's job approval numbers are UP? Gallup now has a 55% figure and two recent polls (CBS, Ipsos-McClatchy) have it at 56%.

It was just a few days ago that Politico was writing that Obama might go below 50% quite early i his presidency, but there has been a rebound. Frankly, I think that some of it was due to younger Americans being away from home when pollsters called. In other words, it may have been a seasonal effect.

In any case, I await the national media writing new stories about Obama bouncing back.

Posted by: Amy on September 3, 2009 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

They don't write nutty pieces for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Except that one of the wonks quoted, Scott Gottlieb, does write nutty pieces for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Posted by: Steve M. on September 3, 2009 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

I read the same article and was waiting for the serious conservative solutions to the health care crisis. But instead what I read were the serious conservative arguments against health care reform

In other words, the "serious" conservatives strongly oppose Obama's health care initiative and want to see it fail, but they don't believe in death panels.

Posted by: Jinchi on September 3, 2009 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, you've been duped.

The GOP game plan to kill health care reform is to drag it out until people sour on it.

At the earlier stage opponents of health care reform made a bunch of noise without substance.

Now that pro-reform people had taken the position that opponents of reform aren't offering something substantive, now they roll out a new set of objections.

So now they want to buy time having a public debate over their "objections".

Guess what? You can deal with said objections and it still won't get you one vote in Congress.

I think advocates for health care reform have an obligation to deal with these objections or acknowledge the plan isn't perfect, just better than the status quo.

But engaging in a substantive back-and-forth is playing into their game.

1. The Republicans controlled the whole for most of the Bush years. They didn't act or even float a proposal.

2. Republicans have known health care would be on the agenda. The Democrats have been trying to engage them. It's a little late to introduce new proposals to the process.

3. The Republicans have simply not shown they are negotiating in good faith. Hell, I question whether a bunch of Democrats are negotiating in good faith.

Posted by: Carl Nyberg on September 3, 2009 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

While there certainly are some conservative intellectuals out there, the problem is that both of them are far too busy these days to make public appearances.


Posted by: Zorro on September 3, 2009 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

I await the national media writing new stories about Obama bouncing back.

No, no. It's September.

What you'll see next are comparisons saying "at this point in his term George Bush's popularity was in the high 70's".

Posted by: Jinchi on September 3, 2009 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

Why would Mitch McConnell preach the horrors of government healthcare when he had an operation at Bethesda Navy hospital?

Posted by: JS on September 3, 2009 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

The U.S. likes to call itself the world's oldest democracy.

Well, it may be old but it is a democracy in name only. The country is in the grip of demagoguery enabled by a lousy education system and corporate controlled "news" media. Unless the non-demagogues stand up - starting at the top - the obvious decline into 3rd world nonentity will continue on an accelerated basis.

Posted by: PowerOfX on September 3, 2009 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

Jinchi - I never have been able to get my head around the fact that George Bush ignored the warnings of 9/11 and let it happen and this is supposed to have made his ratings go up. Every time I think about Sept 11, it just reminds me how bad the Bush lot were. Perhaps it was his performance with the bullhorn standing near the World Trade Center!

Posted by: JS on September 3, 2009 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

It is a shame, as Maddow elucidated yesterday on her program.

There is NO true debate happening.

I love her for calling it what it is.

I'm losing faith in Obama by the minute..what's up?

If he doesn't get a grip and intend to be clear, simple AND follow through on the Health Care issue,all will be lost.

He seems to have had some over-idealistic fantasy of be bi-partisan, of being professorial, of winning over folks with his fantastic ability to shmooze and speak.

What he has failed at his ability to look at the reality. He is hated by some very powerful groups. People don't 'get' him...he's black, he's trying to lecture about parent's role in education, he's trying to do way way too much...

He needs to get real. He needs to keep his thesis simple but one that touches all of us--he rambles like a good Harvard intellectual professor might..but NO--he must now dumb it down some--keep his speeches firm and simple, with one or two focus lines/ central catch phrases..

He is trying too hard to remain professor...he's not that anymore.

He is one these true perfectionists who has in the past been able to get away with pontificating, deal making, waxing prophetic, doing several things at once...

He needs to essentially dumb it down and get ready to put his gumption where his mouth is.

He can't-- like Lawerence O'Donnel so adeptly (and that memory he discussed on Maddow last evening about folks just not believing Clinton was haunting a very sobering) revealed-- he cannot in essence just hold up a veto pen and deliver a forceful speech like Clinton did re: Health Care a couple of decades ago.

That's NOT enough...He must be ready willing and able to lose friends and be unpopular and even risk re-election.

(Although, if single payer reform passes, I think folks will realize it was a good thing).

Is Obama ready to be truly unpopular? Can he tolerate that? That is the test of the true leader. The truth is he already is heading that way--by trying too hard to be that which right now is clearly impossible.

Screw the Republicans. They are VERY angry and the general public is confused as to what the public option even means...Paranoia has replaced reason. Folks don't get it..they need a reality check..they think this means a "Government take-over" when in fact it will empower them with more choices...

I'm so pissed with Obama...he's turning out to be much more attached to his image of being something special rather than getting true help to those who needed it.

Hilary Clinton was my first choice, and I'm sorry now I went with Obama...She was very strong and focused on Health Care..

Posted by: my rant about Obama on September 3, 2009 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

Instead, we're left with liars and fools, spreading propaganda and nonsense, leaving us with a discourse unbefitting our democracy.

I hate to have to be the one to say it, but I am increasingly convinced that our discourse is entirely befitting of our democracy. Then again, I also spend a lot of time boring my friends by noting that our country is irretrievably dooooooooomed (it is at least fun to say if you draw out the oo all spooky-like).

Posted by: socratic_me on September 3, 2009 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

JS, I have the same problem. If Bush had happened in a parliamentary democracy his own party would have engineered his resignation with a week of 9/11

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on September 3, 2009 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

There is no such thing as a free market in medical care!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Posted by: Tigershark on September 3, 2009 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

Are there not some good reasons to question (and fear) centralized governmental authority? I sure as hell ain't looking and relying on D.C. for all the answers.

Posted by: lou on September 3, 2009 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, that we could just lock the "Wonks", Right and Left, in a room to hash this out.

Then the 'Merrican pipple' could concentrate on what's really important- Bowling, Monday Night Football, and getting smashed/laid. . .

Posted by: DAY on September 3, 2009 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Just as a quick followup, my primary concern is not so much saving costs that might come with that central governmental authority (questionable at that), but with the degradation of quality health care. We can achieve lower costs and still end up with crappy care.

Posted by: lou on September 3, 2009 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

War is too important to be left in the hands of generals, and policy debates are too important to be left in the hands of wonks.

Posted by: Al on September 3, 2009 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

For once Steve, I totally disagree with you. And here's why:

If you break the opposition into the five parts you describe, you break the one opposition message into five messages, which increases the likelihood of one of them getting some sort of traction.

I think that, when the dust settles, we're going to want the people preaching "fiscal responsibility" to be lumped in with the "crazy death panel" people and the "don't let the Democrats win at any cost" people. The morons make the vaguely reasonable people seem more stupid and crazy. And ultimately their whole argument comes down to "I've got mine, why should I give anything to people who are different than me?"

Posted by: chrenson on September 3, 2009 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Hilary Clinton was my first choice, and I'm sorry now I went with Obama...She was very strong and focused on Health Care..

A healthcare reform process led by Hillary Clinton couldn't _possibly_ have gotten obstructed and jerked around by crazypants Republicans!

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on September 3, 2009 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

a) they want to cut costs from the health care system

b) the most effective ways to save money in the system come from centralized, government decision-making

c) they're against centralized, government decision-making

Maaannnn! Sucks to be them!

Posted by: Daniel Kim on September 3, 2009 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

I understand your sarcasm, but perhaps she would be better at getting us healthcare simply because she saw it happen before, exactly as it's happening now.

Too bad Obama wasn't paying attention, or just thought he could do better.

Posted by: DR on September 3, 2009 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

I know why Steve wants to engage this tiny, irrelevant group of right wing wonks! It's damage control for the Obama sell out.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on September 3, 2009 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

You conclude, "It's a shame the voice of the opposition is stark raving mad, and the idea of an enlightened debate is a naive daydream."

It is truly a shame. I would like to see us debate the Canadian system vs. the German system. The Canadian system is basically Medicare for all, so we know how this works. Notice that while insurance in Canada is the "public option," actual medical providers are private -- and people can choose any doctor. This, presumably, would be the liberal option.

The German system is all private. Now how many Americans know that? The insurers (there are over 200 of them) are private, but they are non-profit and tightly regulated. Doctors are private. Germans can choose any insurer and any doctor. This should be the conservative option. As you note, however, today's wingers are so "stark raving mad" that they can't even consider this, since it would require the government to transform and regulate the insurance industry.

Personally, I really can't see why any American would oppose a German-style system for our country. It accomplishes liberal objectives with more conservative means. The very capitalistic, gun-owning, and linguistically diverse Swiss chose this system back in the 1990s. We all admire the Swiss. And I think it fits better with America's frontier traditions. Ironically, however, since we already have experience with Medicare and since conservatives have become so nihilistic, it will probably be easier -- and thus more likely -- to work toward Medicare for All, and in the current circumstances that means, of course, some form of the public option.

By the way, I think it is vital for the well-being of our nation that we get something done now. We simply cannot go on spending vastly more of our GDP than any other nation on health care while at the same time leaving so many of our citizens neglected, bankrupted, and traumatized.

Beyond that, we need to demonstrate that we as a nation, meaning through our national government, can act. If the Reagan mantra that "government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem" is allowed to stand, we are doomed as a great nation. Just to mention a few examples, there are times when a great nation -- through its national government -- needs to set aside land for national parks and break up monopolies (Republican Theodore Roosevelt) or provide jobs to the unemployed and support for the elderly (FDR), build a system of super-highways and integrate a public high school(Republican Dwight Eisenhower) or go to the moon and end legal segregation (JFK and LBJ). A nation where "government is the problem" can do none of these things. We, meaning we Americans, need to show that we as a nation can do something world-class again.

Posted by: CMcC on September 3, 2009 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

They don't even get onto the Sunday talk shows. Newt does.

Posted by: bob h on September 3, 2009 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

That's rubbish. There are no Conservative wonks waiting to be heard; their supposed existence is only offered so the Republicans can say they have a plan, but nobody wants to listen to it because of the charged atmosphere. Republicans have no plan beyond keeping Obama from getting any substantial legislation passed. Their louder spokespersons have said often enough that America has the best healthcare system in the world, to stop trying to fix something that ain't broke, and this is either what they believe or what they cynically pretend to believe while helping to make the world safe for private insurance.

Don't fall for it. There is no Republican plan that is not business as usual. If there were any real Conservative wonks, they'd have no trouble selling elements of a serious plan to the White House, which would never refuse a true offer of bipartisan cooperation.

Posted by: Mark on September 3, 2009 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

@Michael7843853: I agree that the German system looks very good. (My girlfriend had a bike accident in Berlin recently, so I became quite interested in the German system!) If we were starting from scratch, I'd be all for it.

The problem is that we already have health insurance companies whose profits are several billion dollars a year. United Health's projected profit for 2009 is $5 billion: there are 39 countries with a total GDP less that that, and four states with a lower total budget.

Those stockholders are the Americans who would oppose a German-style system for the U.S. As a practical political matter, can you imagine telling them, "ok, from now on you guys are a non-profit?"

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