How did Republicans get onto the losing end of the fight over Obamacare, the government shutdown, and the debt ceiling? Analysts and operatives are excessively focused on political tactics and should look to underlying dynamics. The Republican Party’s biggest problem is a confused agenda that doesn’t appeal to voters.
Yes, the GOP would not have hit a brick wall if Senator Ted Cruz hadn’t wrenched the steering wheel toward it and stepped on the gas, or if President Obama and Congressional Democrats had not spent two weeks refusing to negotiate and seeking to humiliate Republicans rather than to address their concerns—never a good idea in a political system where parties share power or alternate in leadership, as it breeds corrosive resentment. (This was illustrated by the fact that before the latest confrontation, many Republicans were seething about the way in which President Obama and Congressional Democrats rammed the law through in 2010 with no minority support. They are still looking for payback and will now want it even more.)
All of these factors surely contributed to the shutdown and default debacle, but the real problem lies deeper: the failure to define a positive agenda for the GOP that unites Republicans and appeals to the rest of America. In concrete terms, Republicans could have avoided today’s mess by proposing an alternative to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that was sufficiently appealing to Americans to have forced Congressional Democrats into making concessions. By doing so, Republicans could have produced better legislation and avoided tilting at the windmill of repealing a law when they control only one chamber in the legislature.
The law’s flaws provided a real opportunity to do this. For example, while Obamacare certainly expands access to health insurance, it does relatively little to help the many middle class Americans who already have insurance with their top concern—the rising costs of coverage and of health care more broadly. On the contrary, thus far the law appears to be increasing premiums as insurers rush to cover their anticipated compliance costs.
There are also some timebombs in the law. Obamacare’s 40 percent excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” insurance plans, which takes effect in 2018, may explode underneath a large share of middle class Americans with family coverage through small employers. For this group, premiums are high not because their insurance plans are luxurious, but because they are members of small and therefore higher-risk groups; they would pay no tax on the same plan if they got it as government workers or employees in a major corporation. This could be a devastating blow to workers in small businesses, which provide about half of all private sector employment—perhaps intentionally, as it may work to drive more people into the so far less-than-impressive exchanges. And this is just one of a number of well-known shortcomings of the ACA.
Yet rather than making serious and comprehensive health-care-reform proposals, Republicans spent all their time talking about tort reform (a serious issue, but far from a comprehensive solution) and “death panels”. If Republicans had a real alternative bill at the time—something that responded to Americans’ concerns while advancing conservative principles—it would have been much harder for the administration and its allies to do what they did.
There are several possible explanations for Republicans’ failure to present a credible alternative to Obamacare. One is a lack of ideas, though this seems unlikely given the extensive work on health care by conservative scholars and experts. Others include tactical miscalculation in assessing public attitudes toward the administration’s approach and intraparty disagreement about what to do. Both of these appear to have contributed to the weak Republican performance during the healthcare debate of 2009 and 2010. Mistaken assessments of public opinion had an even more destructive impact in recent weeks after being amplified in a conservative media echo chamber during the intervening years.
The challenge for the GOP is that, like “socialist” Europe, Americans have rich-country problems. They are eager to improve quality-of-life, whether through health-care reform, easier access to a college education, or a social safety net for those who genuinely need it. Democrats have easy answers to these desires—big-government programs to provide what voters think they want.
Republicans generally try to fight these plans by saying “no, that costs too much, it will mean higher taxes and a big government”, when they should instead propose something different and positive. No matter how bad the Democrats’ ideas may be, you can’t fight something with nothing. More than that, by rarely presenting comprehensive policy alternatives, the Republicans are conceding both policy space and political space to the other side. And they are needlessly giving away an opportunity to fight since, in making personal and political decisions, most Americans ask “is this what I want?” before they ask “can we afford it?” Many will choose an imperfect solution if it’s the only option.
The good news for the GOP is that its governors and mayors generally understand this. After all, they are personally responsible for addressing their voters’ wants, unlike members of Congress, and know that their success depends upon improving quality-of-life in their states and cities. The bad news is that internal divisions in the party seem to only be growing as each faction draws opposite and self-reinforcing conclusions from defeat—something that may make it impossible to develop a consensus policy approach or a coherent message. Worse, many Republicans seem to be taking aim at others inside their own party who have different points of view. As a result, if Republicans can’t find a way to agree, historians may recall 2013 as the year the Republican Revolution reached its final stage—when the revolutionaries turned on one another, and the revolution devoured itself.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher ofThe National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.