Earlier, I promoted Doc Zero’s excellent post on how we need to focus on political action in order to turn the ship of state back towards individual liberty rather than collectivism and redistribution. The good Doc rightly looks forward rather than backward, but we as conservatives and/or Republicans need to learn a big lesson from this health-care takeover loss. Nature abhors a vacuum and rushed to fill it, and the same thing is true in politics.
The cost of American health care has been a major priority for American voters for a long time. While not always in the top two or three issues, the health-care issue has always occupied part of that top tier, along with national security, the economy, the deficit, and so on. That was certainly true in 1993 when Bill Clinton and the Democrats attempted the first government takeover of the American health-care system; it failed not because the issue didn’t matter to the American people, but because the Clintons overreached in their statist proposal. After that failure, Clinton wisely avoided the issue for the rest of his presidency.
Republicans, though, had a number of opportunities to address the issue. Barack Obama may have had his numbers wrong at times, but he wasn’t entirely incorrect when he accused the GOP of proposing their excellent plans a little late in the game. The GOP had total control of Congress from 2002 to 2006, and the only significant plan they put forward on health care was the creation of the Medicare Part D entitlement that did little but to speed the coming collapse of Medicare. In that effort, the Republican majority did everything that the GOP has rightly accused the Democrats of doing this time around — such as using statist solutions to a problem where market-based solutions existed, and fudging the numbers to fool people into believing it wouldn’t cost too much.
Not once during that period did the party seriously attempt to reform the health-care cost structure, let alone through the use of market-based strategies now expounded by Paul Ryan, among others. Why? First, Republicans did attempt to reform Social Security in 2005 with market-based strategies and got demagogued by Democrats for making the effort. But it wasn’t really that reason that kept the GOP from engaging on health-care reform. That issue was widely seen as a Democratic strength, and Republicans didn’t want to engage heavily on their turf.
What we see now is the result of leaving that vacuum on a major issue. Since the GOP refused to engage on it, they wound up with lower credibility. More importantly, by not accomplishing reform when they had their chance, Republicans left it on the table for when the Democrats got complete control of Washington. Had Republicans fixed the cost-structure problems when they had the chance, the Democrats wouldn’t have had the opportunity for ObamaCare. Even if they had attempted it and lost through filibustering, Republicans could have set the terms of the debate this time around with a lot more credibility with voters on reform than they had over the past year.
One of the politicians I admired over the years was the late Jack Kemp. I didn’t always agree with Kemp or his policy proposals, but what I did admire was his willingness to apply his conservative principles and thought to almost any issue on the table. Kemp didn’t retreat when it came to tough issues like poverty, welfare, or urban policy, areas that Republicans like to avoid. Kemp fought on every battleground, which was a rarity in the GOP, and until circumstances forced the issue lately, it still is.
In the future, Republicans and conservatives can’t afford to forget this lesson. We need to have solutions for issues that resonate with voters, or else we risk ceding the field to statists with promises of free lunches and bills that no one can possibly pay.
Update: A few commenters object, saying that we were fighting two wars at the time. Well, we’re still fighting one now, too, and Congress isn’t the one fighting it. In the four years between 2002 and 2006, Congress had plenty of time to tackle other issues, and did. When exactly do people think we started expanding discretionary spending for “big-government conservatism” (spending which was not military related)? Shrugging off the tough domestic agenda items during a time of two low-level wars got the GOP labeled as a war party, which is at least a small part of the reason why Republicans didn’t have a lot of credibility on this issue until it was too late to stop ObamaCare.
It’s not about assigning blame. It’s about learning the lesson of forfeiting on issues that matter to American voters. We can’t fix what happened in 2002-6, but we can try to keep from repeating it when we win back the majority.