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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Chait: GOP Courts Strategic Disaster, Intellectual Bankruptcy

Democrats have railed, with good reason, for a long time about the moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party. But the current political realities, especially the new health care reform deal, indicate that Republicans have also set a new standard of intellectual bankruptcy and strategic disaster, according to a pair of interesting articles by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic.
Chait’s 12/19 post at TNR‘s ‘The Plank’ explains the GOPs strategic blundering it this way:

At the outset of this debate, moderate Democrats were desperate for a bipartisan bill. They were willing to do almost anything to get it, including negotiate fruitlessly for months on end. We can’t know for sure, but Democrats appeared willing to make enormous substantive concessions to win the assent of even a few Republicans. A few GOP defectors could have lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited than what President Obama is going to sign. And remember, it would have taken only one Democrat to agree to partial reform in order to kill comprehensive reform. I can easily imagine a scenario where Ben Nelson refused to vote for anything larger than, say, a $400 billion bill that Chuck Grassley and a couple other Republicans were offering.
But Republicans wouldn’t make that deal. The GOP leadership put immense pressure on all its members to withhold consent from any health care bill. The strategy had some logic to it: If all 40 Republicans voted no, then Democrats would need 60 votes to succeed, a monumentally difficult task. And if they did succeed, the bill would be seen as partisan and therefore too liberal, too big government. The spasm of anti-government activism over the summer helped lock the GOP into this strategy — no Republican could afford to risk the wrath of Tea Partiers convinced that any reform signed by Obama equaled socialism and death panels.

Chait then describes Republican Senator Olympia Snowe’s role as a sort of GOP shill, feigning a willingness to compromise as a delaying tactic, attempting to “run out the clock” so Dems wouldn’t have time to put health care reform behind them and get focused on jobs in time to get in optimum position for the mid-terms. Thus the Republicans forced the Dems into a 60-40 partisan strategy, motivating even “relentlessly centrist” Democratic senators, like Evan Bayh to give up on the possibility of a bipartisan deal. As a result, Chait concludes:

The Republicans eschewed a halfway compromise and put all their chips on an all or nothing campaign to defeat health care and Obama’s presidency. It was an audacious gamble. They lost. In the end, they’ll walk away with nothing. The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they’ve been dealt will last for decades.

In Chait’s longer 12/21 article, “The Rise of Republican Nihilism,” he explores the equally-unimpressive Republican bankruptcy of ideas behind the strategic blundering. As Chait notes in a couple of nut graphs,

In the days following the 2008 election, some Republicans predicted that the party would retool itself in response to reality–not just political reality but the actuality of policy challenges. “Republicans,” wrote conservative Ramesh Ponnuru in Time, “will have to devise an agenda that speaks to a country where more people feel the bite of payroll taxes than income taxes, where health-care costs eat up raises even in good times, where the length of the daily commute is a bigger irritant than are earmarks.” Nothing like that rethinking has happened or will happen.
…The administration has selected three main issues as the focus of its domestic agenda: the economic crisis, climate change, and health care reform…In all three areas, the Republican Party has adopted a stance of total opposition, not merely because it disagrees with aspects of Obama’s solutions, but because it cannot come to grips with the very nature of the problems of modern American politics.

Chait goes on to describe the GOP ‘alternatives’ to Democratic approaches in the three areas, which boil down to: tax cuts for the rich; denial of global warming and “fantastical geoengineering schemes”; and “plans that mostly reflect the right’s embrace of the failed market system that created the health care disaster.” More specifically, on health care reform, Chait explains:

The Republicans’ favorite reform is to let people buy insurance from any state they want. Currently, states require insurance plans to offer certain basic services–psychiatric benefits, maternity care, and so on. That creates another subsidy from the healthy to the sick–healthy people have to buy insurance that pays for all kinds of care they probably won’t need, keeping down the cost for people who do need it. If you let people buy out-of-state insurance, states will lure insurance companies by offering lax requirements, and the healthy will follow. That would allow all the healthy, inexpensive customers to have cheap plans with other inexpensive, healthy people, while sick, expensive customers would get stuck in expensive insurance plans with other sick, expensive customers.
Almost nobody takes these plans seriously as legislative proposals. They are a response to the cross-pressures of the general public’s demand that the party appear to have a positive vision on health care and the base’s demand of fealty to the ideals of the free market. So the House Republican plan would require states to establish plans to cover people with preexisting conditions, but it makes no suggestion for where the funding for such plans would come from. Likewise, the “Health Care Freedom Act,” sponsored by DeMint, is funded by repealing the financial bailout and demanding a prompt repayment. If you’re wondering what the consequences of immediately repealing the bailout might be, or where this plan would find its financing after the bailout funds ran out, you’re missing the point of the exercise. The main role of these plans is to serve as a prop for the disingenuous party talking point that Congress should defeat Obama’s plan and “start over” with “real reform.”

Chait attributes the shallowness of Republican alternatives to “the deepening hold on the GOP of anti-government ideology.” He links to an amusing but revealing TNR collection of quotes by Republican leaders during the last century, predicting certain doom following the enactment of reforms like Social Security, regulation of child labor, the minimum wage, womens’ suffrage and Medicare. Particularly noteworthy is this dilly from conservative icon Ronald Reagan, now hailed as his party’s great visionary, arguing against Medicare in 1961:

The doctor begins to lose freedoms; it’s like telling a lie, and one leads to another. First you decide that the doctor can have so many patients. They are equally divided among the various doctors by the government. But then the doctors aren’t equally divided geographically, so a doctor decides he wants to practice in one town and the government has to say to him you can’t live in that town, they already have enough doctors. You have to go someplace else. And from here it is only a short step to dictating where he will go.

Ridiculous as it reads, this Reagan quote is emblematic of the sort of fear-mongering that remains the core of the GOP’s strategy, absent any credible alternatives to Democratic health care reform proposals. Chait is exactly right in terming Republican strategy as nihilism, eloquently depicted in this YouTube clip featuring one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. One key — make that critical — challenge for Democrats in 2010 is to inculcate the nihilism of the GOP as a meme among swing voters.

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