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On Republican Victories that Weren’t

I often like to think about what might have been. I’m not going to contemplate a world without partisanship. I’m not going to ponder a world where everyone works together and sings kumbaya. Those are nice ideals, but within the reality of one-upsmansmanship and party message control, I can still see clearly a very different political path from 2009 to now; a path that starts with Republicans claiming a victory that was rightfully theirs, and would drastically change the political landscape in which we currently live.

It starts with a simple story of an idea: the individual mandate. As outlined here by FoxNews, the individual mandate made it’s way from the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation in 1989, into Republican-sponsored health care bill proposals in 1993 (by current mandate opponents such as Chuck Grassley), enacted by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in 2006, and finally into another congressional bill proposal in 2007 co-sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat. Mitt Romney even referred to the rule as his “personal responsibility mandate.” In short, this idea was entirely of Republican origin and remained a popular means of reforming health care and reducing costs within the Republican party until very recently.

Let’s now think back on the 2009 health care debate. The Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, but did not quite have a filibuster-proof majority. They desperately wanted to have a public option in their health care legislation. Ultimately, the death of Senator Ted Kennedy and the strong opposition and threats to join Republicans in a filibuster by Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman crushed that plan. The end result is that a massive health care bill focused around Republican ideas and modeled after a Republican governor’s plan passed through the Democrat-controlled congress without having a public option attached. Just imagine if that’s how the story played out in the messaging.

Imagine that Republicans, seeing the embrace of a conservative ideal, participated in the framework and negotiations structuring the law. Imagine that upon the failure of the public option, a bipartisan bill was passed with Republicans claiming victory for the bill and their role in its success. Their idea had won the day. They had defeated the public option. They had, in effect, hijacked the President’s attempt at a signature piece of legislation. They had brought him along to an individual mandate he opposed in his primary against Hillary Clinton. What if what is now the signature polarizing piece of legislation of Obama’s administration was instead spun, messaged, and ultimately viewed (Republicans are pretty good at message control, after all) as a strong Republican minority exposing the President’s weakness. What if Obamacare was Boehnercare? What if, in 2012, Mitt Romney ran partly on the platform that the President’s greatest accomplishment was simply piggybacking off of his largely successful Massachusetts legislation? Might he have looked stronger? Maybe even won the election? Would Democrats still be clamoring for enough seats and votes to add a public option to the bill?

Certainly, we would not be here. Certainly, Republicans who embraced health care reform and undercut the President by taking most of the credit for it would not be orchestrating a government shutdown as a last-ditch effort to defund a bill based on a long history of their own conservative ideas.

Then again, if the Republicans didn’t shift the current debate to Obamacare, Democrats would probably be pressing them to undo the “sequestration” cuts in the new fiscal year. As it is, the Democrats are offering a “clean” continuing resolution, accepting the funding level reductions enacted by sequestration as the new status quo…. yet another Republican victory for which they are too partisan to notice and accept credit.

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