28 March 2010

Mitch McConnell's failure

After the Republican leadership purported to gauge the country's support for the Democrats' bill, it was faced with a choice when evaluating the bill's unpopularity and the party's huge hole in Congress.

First, they could proffer a new piece of legislation with substantive policy ideas and present it to the American people. The Sunday morning talk shows, in particular, are an enormous platform for such ideas, and McConnell, et al. chose to use those opportunities in the weeks leading up to the vote to simply oppose the Democratic bill in its entirety. I personally believe the country might be better off with no bill rather than the one recently passed by Congress. But I am not a congressional Republican leader charged with making public policy. Though he probably has long since forgotten, Mitch McConnell was sent to Washington many years ago to legislate.

The Republicans' second option was to do nothing and continue to fill the airwaves with their worn-out "government takeover" arguments. Even John McCain got into the act, one Sunday parroting nearly verbatim on "Meet the Press" the same arguments McConnell made 15 minutes later on "State of the Union." It was a fascinating, utterly disappointing study in the policy of obstructionism. Even the normally loquacious McCain simply towed the party line (no doubt because anything less would strengthen his primary challenger, J.D. Abramoff, er, Hayworth).

The leadership couched the debate entirely wrong. Instead of arguing that the Democrats' bill was completely unworkable and needed to get tossed out completely, the GOP should have crafted its own bill, adopting some of the Democrats' better ideas (and yes, the bill has several useful provisions in it) and focusing their version of the legislation on driving down costs system-wide. Instead of making policy arguments in favor of their proposals, McConnell and his ilk simply took to the airwaves in complete opposition to the existing bill. This was a risky gamble, especially when facing such an enormous deficit in each house, and it completely backfired.

I expressed in a prior post that although the Republican leadership was correct in its assessment that most Americans opposed the Democratic bill, they ignored at their great peril the fact that a number of provisions of the bill were actually very popular, in particular the bill's prohibition of denials for preexisting health conditions. Another popular element of the bill was the provision giving college students the ability to continue coverage on their parents' health plans through age 25. There is no rational reason to oppose such a provision.

I also noted that it is true that Paul Ryan and Tom Coburn, among others, wrote legislation to address various problems with the system, and that would achieve the objective under which the Democrats' legislation utterly fails -- controlling costs. For instance, Jeffrey Anderson of the Weekly Standard set out his thoughtful ideas here.

However, as Russ Douthat noted, these ideas were never adopted by the Republican leadership or the conservative amplification infrastructure (Fox News, the American Enterprise Institute, talk radio and the vast conservative blogosphere).

Instead, McConnell adopted the theory that the answer wasn't proffering substantive ideas, but rather whipping congressional Republicans into a unified opposition to the Democratic agenda. Douthat examined the absurdity of that approach here.

Newt Gingrich -- perhaps the most legitimately conservative man on the planet -- has long warned Republicans they must be able to use the legislative process to their advantage and not simply oppose the president's agenda in totality; rather, Gingrich said that the Republican objective must be to rebuild a sustainable, governing majority, which requires actual policy ideas.

It's truly disheartening that the bright, engaging Gingrich has left the halls of Congress. In his place have arisen bureaucratic, unimaginative Washington insiders like McConnell and Boehner who are interested in nothing more than maintaining their grip on a crumbling party.

McConnell and Boehner gambled, and they lost. They, sadly, are the party's leaders and chief strategists. Their members take walking orders from them. They ultimately are responsible for this epic defeat.

These men have utterly failed their party, and the ideological movement -- birthed in large part by Buckley and Goldwater and transformed by Reagan -- that their party represented once upon a time.

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