Bennett’s Ouster: a Sign That Conservatives Have Started Paying Attention to Health Care?

Utah Republicans will not be re-nominating U.S. Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) for another term.  A principal reason appears to be their displeasure over a health care bill that Bennett teamed with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to sponsor.

Some commentators decry how Bennett’s ouster demonstrates that the Republican party has lurched to the right.  That’s a reasonable interpretation if you believe, as conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker does, that Wyden-Bennett was a moderate, “market-driven” bill.

Rather than a moderate, market-driven bill, Wyden-Bennett would have created “Medicare Advantage for All.” It would have made health insurance compulsory for all Americans, and imposed stringent government controls on what type of coverage Americans must purchase.  It would have imposed federal price controls on health insurance.  As I explain elsewhere, once you have those elements in place, you’ve got socialized medicine.

Wyden-Bennett went further.  It would have created a new government entitlement to insurance subsidies.   Yes, the legislation would have given workers more insurance choices – at first.  But it would have set in motion economic and political dynamics that would reduce choice and innovation, forcing all Americans into a narrow range of health plans.  It effectively would have prohibited employer-sponsored health insurance, forcing even more Americans to give up their current coverage than ObamaCare would.

Wyden-Bennett was more honest than ObamaCare, in that it would have forced workers to pay their premiums to the IRS.  That would have made it explicit that the mandatory premium payments are indeed a tax.  Those tax payments would have appeared in the federal budget, and the American people would have been able to evaluate the law based on its actual cost. In contrast, ObamaCare’s authors assiduously worked to keep those mandatory (read: tax) payments out of the federal budget.

But on policy grounds, as National Review notes, Wyden-Bennett is more radical than ObamaCare – which itself was so radical that a majority of voters oppose it, and Democrats could just barely corral enough members to pass it.

“Okay, Cannon,” you might object, “but if Wyden-Bennett is even further to the left than ObamaCare, then why do its cosponsors include not just Bennett, but other conservative Republican senators like Lamar Alexander (TN), Mike Crapo (ID), and Judd Gregg (NH)?” Good question.

The answer: conservatives and Republicans just don’t pay as much attention to health care as they should.  (Ask any leftist or free-market health policy wonk; they’ll agree.)  As a result, the health care industry and the Left can easily seduce them into supporting legislation that violates their limited-government principles.  Sen. Wyden pulled it off by dangling the words “choice” and “health savings accounts” in front of his Republican colleagues.  Even when Republicans do pay attention to health care, it’s often after someone convinces them that a left-wing goal like universal coverage can be done in a free-market way. (Exhibit A: Mitt Romney.)

Viewed from this perspective, Bennett’s ouster is not evidence that the GOP has lurched rightward.  It is a sign that conservative voters may be starting to pay attention to health care.  And it gives hope that conservative politicians will do the same.