Monday, October 15, 2012

Health Insurance and the Bipartisan Canard

While most people on the left felt some satisfaction at the way Vice-President Joe Biden challenged Rep. Paul Ryan at last week's debate, there's one Romney campaign talking point that I wish Biden had demolished: that President Obama has not been bipartisan.

In the presidential debate, Mitt Romney touted his record as governor of Massachusetts: "I figured out from Day 1 I had to get along, and I had to work across the aisle to get anything done." An extensive New York Times article on Romney's record as governor notes that the reality was rather different: "Bipartisanship was in short supply." But put that aside. Let's give Romney the benefit of the doubt and accept his characterization that he governed in a bipartisan manner.

His great bipartisan achievement in Massachusetts was of course health insurance reform, which included at the state level the same individual mandate that conservatives now argue is tyranny when implemented by the federal government. Romney's claim to bipartisanship is that the Democratic legislature voted along with Republicans for his bill. Fair enough.

But what does that story tell us? The key to the wide bipartisan support for the bill was the simple fact that Sen. Ted Kennedy urged Massachusetts Democrats to support it, even though it contained what was then the conservative idea of an individual mandate. In short, the Democrats in the legislature, in order to achieve a liberal goal (universal coverage), agreed to a conservative method (individual mandate) of getting there. That was a bipartisan decision.

Fast forward to 2009-2010. President Obama, in the national debate on health insurance, tried to do exactly the same thing: in order to achieve a liberal goal, he agreed to a conservative method of getting there. He refused to stand with liberal Democrats who wanted a single-payer system--that was a non-starter with conservatives. He refused to go to the mat for a public option--that was also a non-starter for conservatives. He supported a solution that would increase the customers for private health insurance companies by using the power of government to encourage (and subsidize) the purchase of private insurance through the individual mandate. He did so to get conservative support for the idea.

You can't get much more bipartisan than that.

But, as Romney and Ryan are fond of pointing out, Obama's health care bill received zero Republican votes. Why? 

To hear Romney and Ryan tell the story, it was because Obama did not take a bipartisan approach. That is patently false. 

The real reason is that Republicans did not want health insurance reform to get done. They did not want President Obama to get anything done. 

According to Robert Draper's book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do -- Inside the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican leaders of Congress met on inauguration day in 2009 and decided to oppose every substantive proposal the president put forward. Their simple strategy was this:
Show united and unyielding opposition to the President's economic policies. 
Win the spear point of the House in 2010.
Jab Obama relentlessly in 2011.
Win the White House and the Senate in 2012.
Paul Ryan was one of the participants at that meeting. He knows that it was the policy of his party to deny the president any Republican votes on any significant issue.

Nonetheless, Ryan had the unmitigated gall to say at the debate: "Different than this administration, we actually want to have big bipartisan agreements."

The simple fact of the matter is that no one--no one--can get bipartisan agreements when one of the two parties has decided beforehand that their own partisan political goals are more important than achieving anything substantive for the country.

On a purely political level, there is a certain brilliance to the Republican strategy. Take advantage of Obama's sincere willingness to reach bipartisan compromise and use it to wring every possible concession to conservative ideas while the details of the legislation are being debated. Then force him to try to pass the legislation with only Democratic votes. He either fails to pass it at all (a win for the GOP) or he passes it without Republican votes and then the GOP slams him for failing to be bipartisan (also a win for the GOP). 

The losers, unfortunately, are the American people. But Republicans in their inauguration day meeting made it crystal clear that their own future political victories, not the welfare of the public, was their top priority.

So when Paul Ryan said, with incredibly hypocritical sanctimony, that he and Mitt Romney were all for bipartisanship, I wish Joe Biden had said something like FDR said in his Syracuse speech in 1936:
Remember, too, that the first essential of doing a job well is to want to see the job done. Make no mistake about this: the Republican leadership today is not against the way we have done the job. The Republican leadership is against the job's being done.
That is as true today as it was then. We know what "bipartisan" means to today's Republican Party: unconditional surrender by the Democrats. What Biden should have said to Ryan is this: President Obama will seize every chance for true bipartisanship. But he will not submit to blackmail by a party that values its own electoral victories over the well-being of the American people.

That's a winning message.