Writing for Forbes, Bruce Bartlett puts forth an interesting hypothesis that healthcare legislation could have been made better (hopefully he meant to write “less destructive”) if the GOP had been willing to compromise with Democrats:
Democrats desperately wanted a bipartisan bill and would have given a lot to get a few Republicans on board. This undoubtedly would have led to enactment of a better health bill than the one we are likely to get. But Republicans never put forward an alternative health proposal. Instead, they took the position that our current health system is perfect just as it is.
Bruce makes several compelling points in the article, especially when he notes that it will be virtually impossible to repeal a bad bill after 2010 or 2012, but there are good reasons to disagree with his analysis. First, he is wrong in stating that Republicans were united against any compromise. Several GOP senators spent months trying to negotiate something less objectionable, but those discussions were futile. Also, I’m not sure it’s correct to assert Republicans took a “the current system is perfect” position. They may not have offered a full alternative (they did have a few good reforms such as allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines), but their main message was that the Democrats were going to make the current system worse. Strikes me as a perfectly reasonable position, one that I imagine Bruce shares.
Let’s explore Bruce’s core hypothesis: Would compromise have generated a better bill? It’s possible, to be sure, but there are also several reasons why that approach may have backfired:
1. It’s not clear a policy of compromise would have produced a less-objectionable bill. Would Senate Democrats have made more concessions to Grassley and Snowe rather than Lieberman and Nelson (much less whether the “concessions” would have been good policy)? And even if Reid made some significant (and positive) concessions, is there any reason to think those reforms would have survived a conference committee with the House? Yet the compromising Republicans probably would have felt invested in the process and obliged to support the final bill — even if the conference committee produced something worse than the original Senate Democrat proposal.
2. A take-no-prisoners strategy may be high risk, but it can produce high rewards. In the early 1990s, the Republicans took a no-compromise position when fighting Bill Clinton’s health plan (aka, Hillarycare), and that strategy was ultimately successful. We still don’t know the final result of this battle (much less how events would have transpired with a different strategy), but if the long-term goal is to minimize government expansion, a no-compromise approach is perfectly reasonable.
3. A principled opposition to government-run healthcare will help win other fights. The Democrats ultimately may win the healthcare battle, but the leadership will have been forced to spend lots of time and energy, and also use up lots of political chits. Does anyone now think they can pass a “climate change” bill? The answer, almost certainly, is no.
4. A principled approach can be good politics, which can eventually lead to good policy. Democrats wanted a few Republicans on board in part to help give them political cover. The aura of bipartisanship would have given Democrats a good talking point for the 2010 elections (“My opponent is being unreasonable since even X Republicans also supported the legislation”). That fig leaf does not exist now, which makes it more likely that Democrats will pay a heavy price during the midterm elections. It is impossible to know whether 2010 will be a 1994-style rout or whether the newly-elected Republicans will quickly morph into Bush-style big-government conservatives (who often do more damage to liberty than Democrats), but at least there is a reasonable likelihood of more pro-liberty lawmakers.
When all is said and done, Bruce’s strategy is not necessarily wrong, but it does guarantee defeat. Government gets bigger and freedom diminishes. For reasons of principle and practicality, Republicans should do the right thing.