Blog No. 20. What now for Republicans? (Schadenfreude is not a policy.)

Schadenfreude: a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people.

Republicans may be forgiven if they have indulged themselves in a bit of Schadenfreude over the continuing debacle of Obamacare.  To be sure, that debacle could hardly have come at a more opportune time. The furies unleashed by the website failures and the cancellation of insurance policies served to soften, if not erase, the public disdain for the Republicans’ recent antics: the ill-advised gambits with the government shutdown and the debt ceiling. Nevertheless, those furies, and the agonies they have produced in Democrats, may prove to be ephemeral. A diet of Schadenfreude does not provide much nutrition, and it surely is not a policy.

The long-term prospects for the Affordable Care Act remain uncertain. Some pundits and editorial writers insist that the program is in a death spiral, while others argue that, once it the website problems are finally sorted out, it will function more or less as advertised and earn wide approval. is disinclined to make predictions, but remains deeply skeptical of the Act. An excellent non-partisan analysis of the structural problems of the Act, and its political problems for Democrats, can be found in an essay by Thomas Edsall in The New York Times on November 19. It included the following observations:

This system requires coordination of over 288 policy options (an average of eight insurers are competing for business in 36 states), each with three or more levels of coverage, while simultaneously calculating beneficiary income, tax credit eligibility, subsidy levels, deductibles, not to mention protecting applicant privacy, insuring web security and managing a host of other data points.A malfunction at any one of these junctures could prove fatal.

In enacting the Affordable Care Act, President Obama and his Democratic supporters in Congress took on the task of creating a set of information technologies that has to interconnect with the I.R.S.; the Departments of Labor, Treasury, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security; the Social Security administration; state governments; insurers; employers; hospitals; and practitioners in the private sector.

The seven million people officials initially estimated would sign up for the Obamacare insurance exchanges this year are putting their well-being and that of their families in the hands of government bureaucracies armed with demonstrably inadequate technological expertise.

The chaos surrounding efforts to activate reinforces a key conservative meme: that whatever the test is, government will fail it. Insofar as voters experience their interaction with government as frustrating and unreliable, the brunt of political damage will hit Democrats, both as the party of government and as the party of Obamacare.

Cumulatively, recent developments surrounding the rollout of Obamacare strengthen the most damaging conservative portrayals of liberalism and of big government – that on one hand government is too much a part of our lives, too invasive, too big, too scary, too regulatory, too in your face, and on the other hand it is incompetent, bureaucratic and expropriatory.

Not surprisingly, of course, the Editorial Board of the Times had taken a much more sanguine view on the preceding day. While it admitted that the debut of Obamacare was “calamitous” it dismissed the experience as “momentary incompetence” and bravely asserted that “once the health care website is working, millions will realize that what they are being fed by Republicans is largely bunk.”  Perhaps the Editorial Board should read Mr. Edsall’s article.

The Times also asserted that Republicans had no alternative proposals for health care. In fact, however, although there is no “official” Republican alternative, there have been a number of Republican proposals. The most recent was the American Health Care Reform Act, a bill drafted by the conservative Republican Study Committee and introduced on September 18 with 107 co-sponsors. No Republican proposal is likely to gain much traction until the fate of Obamacare becomes clearer, but Republicans must not let their stated goal, “repeal and replace” be reduced to “repeal.” The concerns that Obamacare sought to address were legitimate, and however ineptly the law was designed, and those concerns for the uninsured and uninsurable should not be ignored.

Apart from health care, the Times editorial made another point that deserves some comment. The editorial was entitled “A New G.O.P. Excuse for Doing Nothing” and it argued that:

The Obama administration’s fumbling is apparently a good excuse for  [Republicans] to do nothing on immigration reform, on a budget agreement, and on any other initiative coming out of the White House.

“We don’t want a repeat of what’s going on now with Obamacare,” said Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, explaining last week why party leaders would not allow the Senate’s immigration bill to come to a vote, or even to be the subject of negotiations.

It must be acknowledged that the failings of Obamacare do not provide an all-purpose excuse for inaction; apart from health care, immigration reform and a budget agreement are two areas where action is essential.

Immigration. Eric Cantor’s attempt to equate the Senate’s immigration bill with Obamacare is unpersuasive. To begin with, the Senate immigration reform bill passed with bipartisan support, gaining the votes of fourteen Republican Senators. In addition, public support for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship (or, at a minimum, legal status) is far stronger than it has been for Obamacare, even before the latter’s recent disasters.  In addition, there is particularly strong support for comprehensive immigration reform among the business community, long a major constituent of the Republican Party.

Speaker Boehner has insisted that he is committed to immigration reform, but he is also committed to attempting such reform on a piecemeal basis rather than in a single bill. Among the disadvantages of the piecemeal approach is the fact that it offers fewer opportunities for reconciling and balancing competing or opposing priorities (e.g., a path to citizenship vs. greatly enhanced border security). Indeed, it is reasonable to question whether the refusal to draft or consider a single bill is simply a smokescreen for opposition to any significant reform.

For the time being, there seems to be no alternative to waiting to see what Boehner and House Republicans come up with. But if they are not able to produce a series of individual bills that are collectively comparable to the Senate bill, and include a path to citizenship, it will be damaging to the country and to the Republican Party. The inescapable fact is that almost all of the 11 million illegal (or “undocumented”) aliens are here to stay. Neither deportation nor the Romney notion of “self-deportation” is realistic. Compassion aside, it is in the national interest to make those individuals fully productive members of society, contributing to our economy to the full extent of their ability. And, at some point, that will happen.

The only question is how much self-inflicted damage the Republican Party will suffer in attempting to delay the inevitable.  As Rep Tom Cole of Oklahoma has pointed out: “Republicans need to understand that their political problems are neither tactical nor transitory. They are structural and demographic. The hard truth is the GOP coalition constitutes a shrinking portion of the electorate. To change that daunting reality, Republicans must appeal to groups that are currently outside their ranks or risk becoming a permanent minority.”  The immigration reform is not the only issue that Republicans must address constructively, but it is as important as any.

Republican candidates are under increasing attention from immigration activists and the competing pressures and incentives to which they are subject were captured in an article in today’s New York Times that focused on Scott Tipton, a two-term Congressman from Colorado:

One challenge for Mr. Tipton, said someone who has talked to him about the issue, is that he was first elected with the support of the Tea Party, a group that largely scorns a broad immigration overhaul as an amnesty, and he is hesitant to alienate this core constituency.

John Harold, a vegetable farmer in Olathe and a Democrat, said an immigration overhaul was so crucial to his business that he had told his Democratic friends that if Mr. Tipton were to face a primary challenge from the right because of his support for a broad immigration measure, “we would have to support his candidacy.”

Budget Agreement. While immigration reform can (and probably will) be delayed, a budget agreement cannot. There is no option for inaction here, and the question is how painful the process will be and whether the Republicans in Congress again fall victim to self-inflicted wounds.

To begin with, a depressing analysis by Jackie Calmes in The New York Times identified a “dirty secret” that is probably fatal to anything approaching the elusive grand bargain in budget negotiations:

[T]he dirty secret — a phrase used independently, and privately, by people in both parties — is that neither side wants to take the actions it demands of the other to achieve a breakthrough.

That is, many Republicans are no more interested in voting to reduce Medicare and Social Security benefits than Democrats are, lest they threaten their party’s big advantage among the older voters who dominate the electorate in midterm contests like those in 2014.

And Democrats are no more eager than Republicans, with control of both houses of Congress up for grabs, to vote for the large revenue increases that a grand bargain would entail. They do not want to limit popular but costly deductions, as Mr. Obama and past bipartisan panels, like his Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, have proposed. That is especially true for Democrats from states, like California and New York, where affluent voters value deductions for mortgages on first and second homes, charitable giving, and state and local taxes.

If Calmes’s analysis is correct, and it does have a ring of plausibility, even a “little bargain” will be difficult to achieve. But some bargain must be achieved, sooner or later, and almost certainly it will be on terms that satisfy no one. Observers braver and wiser that have thus far declined to predict what an agreement might look like and how it might be reached.  Our only comments at this point are two:  First, it is likely that Republicans will eventually have to edge away from the position that any form of increased revenue is “off the table.”  Second, what should really be off the table is the threat, let alone the actual imposition, of either a shutdown or a failure to increase the debt ceiling. We have been there, and done that, and it didn’t work.

As to a government shutdown, a story in Politico on November 20 gave a somewhat heartening report that, at a closed-door meeting, “members of prominent conservative outside groups warned the Tea Party Caucus against a repeat of October’s 16-day impasse over government funding, warning that the shutdown fight was the Democrat’s best chance to recapture the House.”  The attendees were said to include Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, and representatives from FreedomWorks, Tea Party Express, Citizens Against Government Waste and others.  Nevertheless, The Politico report left in doubt how successful the guests of the Tea Party Caucus had been in hammering home their rather obvious point.  Moreover, the report, curiously enough, focused entirely on the possibility of a shutdown and made no mention of the more damaging possibility of a failure to increase the debt ceiling and a resulting government default.

At the moment, budget negotiations headed by Patty Murray and Paul Ryan continue.  RINOs can only hope that, whatever their outcome, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, having survived a near-death experience in October, will find ways of preventing a similar scenario in January and February. Meanwhile, of course, Wall Street remains cheerfully oblivious to it all as the Dow Jones average motors into the broad sunlit uplands above 16,000.

4 thoughts on “Blog No. 20. What now for Republicans? (Schadenfreude is not a policy.)

  • In his book; “This Noble Land”, James Michener on his vision for America was right. We cannot let the lower third of third nation fall through the cracks. This continued disparity of wealth concerns me, along with others. There is a lack of competency in Washington. In order to avoid riots, its time for Congress to stop bickering and listen to the folks the likes of Michener.

  • Doug,

    I agree with your original observations as well as your comment about a single payer arrangement.

    Jim C.

    • Perhaps. Theoretically. But our existing form of single-payer, Medicare, needs a good deal of reform before it is a suitable model. As noted by Holman Jenkins in the WSJ: ” A study last year by Rand Corp. and former Medicare chief Donald Berwick found between $166 billion and $304 billion of unnecessary spending in $900 billion in annual Medicare and Medicaid spending. A Dartmouth study in 2003 found that high-utilization Medicare regions spend 60% more per patient than low-utilization regions, with no difference in outcomes. A 2005 Harvard study found that end-of-life spending on comparable Medicare patients varied by a factor of five among California hospitals.” Medicare is a key element in the entitlement reform we must undertake in order to bring the federal debt under control.

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