Here’s one thing I absolutely cannot stand hearing: that President Obama is getting what he deserves now because he passed such a “partisan” health-care bill. The suggestion is truly beyond belief and, quite literally, totalitarian in spirit, in the way it flips the truth so perversely on its head, turning the perpetrated-upon into the perpetrator and the aggressor into the victim. As Obamacare flails, one hears the “partisan” line frequently these days on television and radio. More maddeningly still, the alleged liberals and fact-based reporters on various panels often permit it to go unchallenged. Let’s set the record straight.
Obama came into office trying to reach out to Republicans and their voters. Remember Pastor Rick Warren at the inaugural? Remember how the president met with pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights groups early on? (You may not, but he did.) He also tried to horse-trade with them on the stimulus. True, he would not compromise on a tax credit for low-wage workers that Republicans opposed. (Interesting to read this article in retrospect; Obama was trying to help here the later-famous 47 percent.) But he did offer movement on tax cuts, and the Senate did pass a Charles Grassley amendment about the alternative minimum tax. And, at the White House’s request, certain expenditures the White House thought would repel Republicans were stripped out in the hopes of winning GOP support. But that, of course, did not happen in any meaningful way.
In the late spring of 2009, Obama started talking health care. He sat down with Republicans over the summer. He invited a group of Republicans into his office and told them he’d put tort reform in the bill if it would get him Republican votes. They stared at him. Other administration officials met with Republicans a number of times to see if anything could be put in the bill to appease them. The answer was always no. Remember here that the Affordable Care Act is basically a Republican plan to begin with, as the individual mandate idea came from the Heritage Foundation. So you might have thought that some Republicans would be OK with that.
Outside the administration, Democrats in the Senate negotiated with Republicans for months. Those Democrats finally did decide, on August 17, that it was time to throw up their hands, and they reluctantly proceeded without Republicans. “Given hardening Republican opposition to Congressional health care proposals, Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority’s cooperation in approving any overhaul…” is how the Times opened its article on the matter. But it wasn’t for want of trying. Democrats tried, for ages.
Why did they stop trying? Maybe because of things like then-Sen. Jim DeMint’s vow July 9 to make health care Obama’s “Waterloo.” Or maybe Democrats took the hint July 16, when they heard Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say, “We’re doing everything we can to defeat it.” Or maybe it was July 22, when Orrin Hatch, once a reasonable conservative, walked out of the Senate negotiations and announced he would not back any bill. That was, of course, the summer of the Tea Party town hall madness.
It was obvious by then—really before, but certainly by the time of Hatch’s departure—that Republicans would never agree to anything about health-care reform. They would say Obama wouldn’t accept their ideas, and there would be about a half an iota of a smidgeon of truth in that protestation, but of course the reason Obama didn’t accept their ideas is that their ideas were far worse than what ended up in the bill. They put out a four-page set of broad principles in June 2009. Then they filled in some details, and the Congressional Budget Office went over it. Unsurprisingly, it was a joke. The CBO found that it would have increased the number of uninsured and raised premiums for millions. Oh, and get this: Under their plan, insurance companies could still have denied coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Ending that is the main point of reform, and ending that is why reform is so hard.
So Republicans gave no support at all, by design, essentially from the beginning. And then they blame Obama for passing a “partisan” bill? It’s beyond Kafkaesque. It really is like an old communist secret-police trick: We will seize most of your farmland and then jail you for failing to live up to the production quotas.
And then they vote 40 times to repeal it. And then Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican in the House, goes on MSNBC on Thursday, and Chuck Todd asks him if the Republicans want the Affordable Care Act to fail, and he says: “Never.” Never! Can you imagine? Voting to repeal something 40 times is kind of an odd way for a group of people to express their desire to see it succeed.
At a moment when Obamacare is on the ropes, and in a country of people with memories shorter than Michele Bachmann’s future in public life, Republicans know that they can repeat such a dishonest talking point and get a fair percentage of Americans to believe Obama behaved like some raging partisan. The associated corollary point is that this was about his ego or some such nonsense.
Uh, no. Progressive-minded people have been wanting to pass universal health care in the United States for a century. Usually they were Democrats, although back in the day some were Republicans, including Teddy Roosevelt. It has been the major unmet policy goal of American liberalism for decades—not because Democrats want to overpower Republicans politically, but because Democrats want people to have access to health care. Republicans don’t. Since the policy goal makes utterly no sense to them, they assume everything is about politics. Obama wasn’t being “partisan.” He was fulfilling a long-held policy goal—and a central campaign promise, by the way. I thought we were supposed to like it when politicians keep their promises. But now that’s partisan, too, at least to people who see everything through partisan glasses.