Repeal, reform, replace the narrative

Writing the day after ObamaCare’s passage in the House, Jonathan Tobin at the Contentions blog framed the event as he believes the Democrats see it:

[T]his bill’s purported goal of providing affordable health insurance to every American is seen by Obama and his backers as not only just but also inevitable, much the same way they think of the “New Deal” legislation passed by Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” They are convinced that […]ObamaCare will soon be seen not as a massive expansion of government power but as yet another chapter in America’s inexorable journey to social justice…

Tobin goes on to argue that the real job for conservatives must go beyond a critique of ObamaCare, to an “attack on the liberal narrative.”  In the process he employs a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu:

Rather than a progressive innovation, ObamaCare is a retrograde move that seeks to drag American politics and the economy back to the mistaken emphasis on government power of the mid-20th century. Like so much of the welfare economics and failed liberal policies of that era, ObamaCare has the potential to do far more harm than good.

This mode of analysis, which should be familiar to some readers here, defines our political moment as progressivism in self-eclipse, the moment when further progress along the path of leftwing statism requires retreat on every other, and when everything else that political progressivism originally stood for – cleaner politics, responsiveness to the popular will, efficient and up-to-date public administration, simple fairness – must be sought elsewhere.  It could be a moment of profound opportunity to re-shape American politics, but only if conservatives are prepared to seize it.

Today, Republicans are proposing to make “repeal and reform” – repeal of ObamaCare, reform of health care insurance – a centerpiece of their political and electoral strategy, but the former aim is something that some vocal conservatives have been declaring impossible for months.  Without accepting that claim, which will now mostly be advanced by Democrats, we can recognize that repeal will be far from easy.

As for the second aim, in addition to being desirable on its own merits, reform/replace reduces the political burden in one respect – providing a “give” to go with the “take” of repeal – but conservative credibility on reform remains suspect.  When Democrats claimed throughout the Obamacare debate that their opponents had no alternatives, Republicans reacted as though unfairly attacked, the victims of a political-media conspiracy, but in concrete terms they were more guilty than innocent.  The Republicans had had two presidential terms and an extended period of control of Congress without ever making health care overhaul a priority, even in the form of an incremental process of major reform.  In 2008, John McCain did offer an excellent set of proposals, but it was offered defensively, at best, never in a concerted effort to lead on the issue.  Merely pointing to some number of hopeless bills and invisible amendments, as in the recent congressional debate, is not the same thing as having proved your commitment, and this applies to other issues as well.  As the first President Bush learned when campaigning unsuccessfully for re-election in 1992, if you have to plead with people to believe you’re engaged – reading “Message:  I care” off a cue card – then it’s too late.

The ever ready conservative fallbacks – “Don’t spend so much money!” and “Don’t make a bad situation worse!” – may be wise words, but they’re not motivational ones.  Some recent comments by Ross Douthat on Bart Stupak, the pro-life “Blue Dog” who may have put Obamacare over the top, discussed this problem with a view to socially conservative swing voters – potentially the most critical swing constituency in any national election:

[T]here are still pro-life Democrats for a reason: Because many abortion opponents can’t reconcile their views on social justice with the harder-edged, “any redistribution equals socialism” tendencies in the Republican Party. Some of these pro-lifers are older Catholic Democrats like Stupak; some of them are younger Americans who are hostile to abortion but don’t vote on the issue because they can’t imagine themselves being represented by the party of Limbaugh and Beck. A successful pro-life politics desperately needs these constituencies to find representation — and if there’s no place for anti-abortion sentiment among the Democrats, then pro-lifers need the Republican Party to feel hospitable to voters whose impulses on social policy tend in a more communitarian direction.

Douthat might have added certain non-white and immigrant constituencies to the groups that ought to be in play, and he might have noted parallel “impulses” animating many less religious voters.  For our purposes, however, the key point may be the following:

There are conservative and market-oriented proposals on health care reform that are consonant, I think, with Catholic teaching on a just society. But the Republican Party’s leadership wasn’t interested in talking about them, and conservative pro-lifers didn’t seem particularly concerned about this lacuna in the debate.

That these observations will remain difficult for some conservatives to absorb tends to support Douthat’s point, though if you think about someone whom you know, someone who ought to fit within the religious right – Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, or other – but who voted for Obama in 2008, it may be easier for you to understand.  Attacking “social justice” – “Message:  We don’t care” – is as likely to repel these voters as to shake sense into them.  They feel commanded by faith to care for the unborn, but they also feel commanded to care for the poor and vulnerable, to build a community whose commitments reflect their values.  At a time when there are “conservative and market-oriented proposals” that promise better results especially from the perspective of social justice than anything in the discredited “New Deal”/”Great Society”/”New Foundation” playbook, to act afraid of a moral reckoning is self-destructive.

As on other issues historically identified with the left, a reflexive rejection of progressive premises tends to impair any simultaneous argument for alternative solutions.  This contradiction underlies tension between “Reformlicans” and “Repealicans” that will likely worsen over time. Most of us realize that “Repeal + Reform” is a much larger coalition than Repeal or Reform separately, but concessions that seem obviously rational to some, as validating aspects of the just-passed bill initially seemed to Senator John Cornyn, may leave others nonplussed.  Conversely, forms of direct opposition – such as unstinting criticism of Stupak, support for constitutional challenges, disputing the concept of health care as a “right” – carry some risk of re-casting Republicans as “enemies of health care.”  Even the persuasive argument that ObamaCare will overwhelm the system with new demand implies that millions of Americans are presently under-served on a matter of life and death, and calls into question the critic’s commitment to their welfare.

The logic goes like this:  “Enemies of health care insurance reform” -> “Enemies of health care insurance” -> “Enemies of health care” -> “Enemies of health” -> “Enemies.”  Any attack on O-care that overemphasizes “repeal,” and under-emphasizes “replace,” will therefore reinforce counterattacks like this one, from the President on Thursday in Iowa City:

If these Congressmen in Washington want to come here to Iowa and tell small business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest. If they want to look Lauren Gallagher in the eye and tell her they plan to take away her father’s health insurance, that’s their right. If they want to make Darlyne Neff pay more money for her check-ups and her mammograms, they can run on that platform. If they want to have that fight, I welcome that fight.

If it seems these days that all eyes are turning to Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, it’s in part because he is one Republican whose interest in and commitment to matters that affect Lauren, Darlyne, and the other cast members in the moving Democrat reality show, are undoubted, but Ryanism will also be attacked as hostile to programs and commitments beloved by potential new members of the Republican coalition. Consolidating the latter group’s support amidst a Democrat onslaught will require more than a link to a web-site and Ryan’s personal appearances in the mass media:  It will take an earnest, collective labor of years.

Even under today’s unhappy but politically promising circumstances, a conservatism that aims for more than a temporary right-center electoral coalition must demand, and seek, full accountability.  In this regard, a successful assault on the liberal narrative may not be the primary task after all.  Conservatives believe that Obama-Pelosi-Reid-care is as abominably ill-conceived as it was oversold (Yuval Levin’s cover story in the current Weekly Standard provides a comprehensive critical framework).  As external fiscal pressures and internal irrationality pull the contraption apart, the counter-narrative should write itself in broken promises, spiraling costs, bureaucratic chaos, and general economic underperformance – or worse.

The resultant spectacle may virtually by itself lead to electoral victories that in turn restore some balance to national policy-making, but formally or effectively repealing ObamaCare would be something much more ambitious.  “Repeal and reform” recognizes that a sensible, coherent, and conservative replacement program will be critical in that effort, and provides for another major task.  Finally, embracing both objectives implies – indeed, it presumes – the establishment of a new narrative that can withstand fierce opposition and broad skepticism, answer the people’s expectations and demands, and re-align American politics.  Nothing else will do.

cross-posted at Zombie Contentions