Democrats insisted on the most liberal bill they could pass.
In Washington, political defeats always produce finger-pointing, so the conventional wisdom has suddenly turned on a dime and decided that Republicans were wrong to have opposed ObamaCare. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was especially taken yesterday with blogger and Bush speechwriter David Frum’s argument that if only Republicans had negotiated with Democrats, they could have somehow made the bill less awful than it is.
Mr. Frum now makes his living as the media’s go-to basher of fellow Republicans, which is a stock Beltway role. But he’s peddling bad revisionist history that would have been even worse politics. The truth is that Democrats never had any intention of working with Republicans, except to pick off two or three Senators and calling it “bipartisanship.” This worked for Democrats on the stimulus, and they had hoped to do it again on health care.
In the House, Republicans were frozen out from the start. Three Chairmen—Charlie Rangel, Henry Waxman and George Miller—holed up last spring to write the most liberal bill they could get through the House. Republicans were told that unless they embraced the “public option,” there was nothing to discuss.
As for the White House, House GOP leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor in May sent a letter to President Obama “respectfully” requesting a meeting to discuss ideas. The White House didn’t respond. Mr. Obama’s first deadline for House passage was July, and only after public opinion turned against the bill did he begin to engage Republican ideas. Yet in his September address to Congress attempting to revive his bill, he made no concession save pilot projects for tort reform.
In the Senate, a group of Republicans did negotiate with Finance Chairman Max Baucus for months, even as Senators Chris Dodd and Ted Kennedy were crafting a bill that mirrored the liberal House product. GOP Senators Chuck Grassley, Olympia Snowe and Orrin Hatch are hardly strangers to working with Democrats. In 2007, they helped Mr. Baucus expand the children’s insurance program over President Bush’s opposition.
Senate liberals kept tugging Mr. Baucus to the left, however, and eventually the White House ordered him to call off negotiations. Senator Snowe still voted for the Finance Committee bill, though even she fell away on the floor as Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted on pushing the public option and tried, as Ms. Snowe put it, to “ram it” and “jam it” through the Senate.
In the end, Republicans couldn’t as a matter of principle support even 50% of a bill that was such a huge and reckless expansion of government. If they had, they would have rightly lost the support of their own most loyal supporters. In the end, too, the bill was so unpopular—59% opposed in a Sunday CNN survey—that 34 House Democrats voted no and Mr. Reid is resorting to reconciliation to get the “fixes” of more taxes and spending through the Senate.
Meanwhile, some conservatives on cable-TV and the Web have taken to complaining that if only Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had been tougher, he could have killed the bill. Really? Every Republican in Congress voted no. How many more votes is a Minority Leader supposed to get?
The reality is that ObamaCare is the price of two GOP electoral defeats caused by the failure of the DeLay Congress and a dismal Bush second term. The 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit compromised the GOP on spending and legislative bullying. Republicans had a chance to do better on health care in 2005 but put their chips on Social Security and failed. Mitt Romney also gave Democrats renewed political confidence when he signed a prototype of ObamaCare into law in Massachusetts, though he now claims that these fraternal policy twins aren’t related.
Republicans also suffered bad luck that gave Senate Democrats reached their 60 votes only after former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was unjustly indicted, Minnesota’s Al Franken stole a recount from hapless Norm Coleman, and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter jumped ship.
A new President nearly always gets what he wants on his top legislative priority, especially when he has such big majorities in Congress to work with. Republicans nonetheless managed to keep their Members together, turn public opinion against the bill despite nearly unanimous media support for it, and in the end came a few votes short. They would have won if Mr. Obama and Nancy Pelosi hadn’t been so willing to put so many of their Members at risk by pushing a partisan program and flouting normal Congressional rules.
The GOP’s goal now should first be to remove some of the uglier parts of the bill in Senate reconciliation. Then they need to focus on taking back as many seats as possible this fall. Rather than publicly crowing that ObamaCare will deliver them the House—a hard task and a risky expectations game—they’d do better to concentrate on continuing to educate the public about what ObamaCare is going to do to insurance premiums, federal deficits, taxes and the quality of medical care.
Many Republicans are already calling for “repeal” of ObamaCare, and that’s fine with us, though they should also be honest with voters about the prospects. The GOP can’t repeal anything as long as Mr. Obama is President, even if they take back Congress in November. That will take two large electoral victories in a row. What they can do now is take credit for fighting on principle, hold Democrats accountable for their votes and the consequences, and pledge if elected in November to stop cold Mr. Obama’s march to ever-larger government.
Editorial, Wall Street Journal