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What the Right Failed to Do

March 31, 2010

Frum said something about the future of the Republican Party on Larry King Live Monday night that I thought was quite pertinent:

John and I worked together on the Rudy Giuliani campaign, which I think we both felt that represented the center of gravity of American politics, strong on national defense, fiscally conservative, socially modern. There are things that could be done now with — even now with the passage of this health care bill to make it better.

It contains all kinds of destructive new taxes. Republicans can focus on those. It over-regulates within the exchanges and stifles competition. It dumps a lot of Medicaid responsibilities on states that are fiscally strapped. If you talk practically about actual concerns, you can orient the Republican Party also to be a party that’s committed to caring not about the politics of health, but health care itself.

Although I think the odds of a “deal” being struck on health-care reform, i.e. injecting Republican ideas into a Democratic bill, are about as good as a filling out a perfect bracket in the NCAA Tournament (they’re 1 in 3,475,155,182, FYI) for reasons that Yuval Levin detailed recently, I do think conservatives went about the opposition in the wrong way.  Even though they endlessly repeated that they did care about genuine health-care reform, nobody that wasn’t already opposed to the bill once it came out changed their minds.  Sure, the bill was unpopular, but support didn’t fluctuate thaaaat much on any sector of the political landscape after the initial Baucus plan surfaced.

Perhaps the Democrats still would have passed it anyway, but I think the real go-getters like Nancy P were probably positively reinforced by the fact that even after a year of debate, nobody, not even the Great Lowerer of the Oceans himself, could push the poll numbers one way or the other.  It’s always been as just as popular or unpopular as it was ever going to be.  What does that mean?  It means that after all that horns-locking and pettifogging, conservative pundits and politicians didn’t convince anybody outside of their own constituency that this health-care reform bill was a bad idea.  Top notch, fellas.

What happened?  I personally believe that the most prominent voices on the Right simply made the wrong arguments.  Instead of pointing out, as Frum does, that the law contains new taxes, is far too large of a fiscal burden, and severely over-regulates the insurance market, among other things, big-name conservatives chose instead to malign the President himself and the other politicians who wanted to get the thing passed.  The merits of these accusations are irrelevant.  People don’t like to be wrong, and they especially don’t like to be wrong when it comes to politics.  If you voted for the President in November, it’s not going to be easy to convince you that you made a colossal mistake.

Attacks of a personal nature make this situation worse—conservatives ended up looking like they were opposed to anything just for the sake of being opposed because they hate the President, at least to those who seem like they don’t pay attention a’tall (which is a significant majority of the population of this country).  The Right can complain about this characterization all it wants, but the truth is that it didn’t persuade anybody that it was making good-faith arguments against the Democrats’ health-care ideas.  It’s not that some people weren’t trying–they were–but that’s not the way it looked to the average American.

Sure, this health-care law was unpopular, it has been all along, and that obviously didn’t stop the Democrats from passing it.  But bear with me for a moment: what if, in a shocking turn of events, the Republicans had focused on what was actually bad about the bill instead of focusing on how the President wants to turn us into a socialist country or whatever and, in turn, convinced a few on-the-fencers that the bill was a bad idea?  If it’s already true that politicians rarely pass unpopular bills, then it’s even more true (?) that politicians pass reeeeally unpopular bills even less frequently.  What if, instead of opposition coming in at +8, it came in at +15?  That number was never going to materialize, however, because the powers that be of the opposition were more interested in criticizing politicians’ motives rather than their actions.

It was never a matter of the American people “waking up” to what liberals were or were not trying to do to this country.  The American people needed to be convinced that this bill—this particular piece of legislation—did not possess the merits necessary to be enacted into law.  And they weren’t.

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