We've heard all the reasons, listed ad infinitum on Fox News and, particularly, at length on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Health care reform will cost too much. It will bankrupt the country. It will force government bureaucrats between patients and doctors -- as though this was somehow worse than our current system, in which insurance-company bureaucrats insert themselves between patients and doctors and, with a profit motive in mind, lose themselves in the sort of banal evil that has created one horror story after another in our health care system.
When polls come out that show that the majority of Americans support a public health care option and would even pay higher taxes to get it, thus robbing conservative pundits of their most populist talking point, they simply play up other polls that show Americans are concerned about the costs, as though concern over costs somehow negates the public's desire for reform. This was the ridiculousness peddled on Morning Joe this morning from my back yard in Miami, when the host, Joe Scarborough, who has recently rediscovered his fiscally conservative voice, argued with bombastic fellow MSNBC personality Chris Matthews. In response to Matthews' howls that the government had to get this done, that conservatives would lose this battle, and that Scarborough's commentary represented that of right-wingers, Scarborough put up the Washington Post poll that showed Americans are concerned over health care costs and demanded to know if all those people were conservative -- never mind the New York Times poll that showed equally huge numbers wanted public health care, regardless of whether they had to pay higher taxes for it. (Update: HuffPo's Jason Linkins has the video of this tete-a-tete here.
But is it just a sudden regaining of their fiscally conservative roots after years of supporting President Bush's profligacy that has conservatives howling over a public health care option? I would argue that there is a more immediate, more cynical and far more political motive: self-preservation. Journey with me now back in time, to those bygone days of the Clinton era, the last time liberals attempted to ensure health care coverage for all Americans, the latest in a long string of failures dating back to the Progressive Era, and then on to the New Deal and the Truman administration. When President Clinton began the push for health care reform in the 1990s, it was none other than far-right pseudointellectual Bill Kristol who released a memo documenting how the right would go about opposing health care reform, and the reasons why they should. You can read the full memo yourself here. But the primary takeaway for our purposes is this: "[health care reform] will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests."
Ironic, really, that the one time Bill Kristol is actually right about something is the time when he spells out the doom of the Republican Party. Especially now, at one of the party's historical low-water marks, passing health care reform that guarantees coverage for the 47 million uninsured Americans would drive a stake through the heart of the party that opposed that reform. The newly covered 47 million voters would, after all, likely have a tendency to vote Democrat, if only to prevent the Republicans from taking over and rescinding their newly gained health coverage. Add to that total the untold millions who would get a warm, fuzzy feeling toward the Democrats after switching to a cheaper, more-efficient public option, and you begin to see just what a vast problem this could turn out to be.
Public health care isn't just the right thing to do from a moral standpoint. For the Democrats, it also makes the most sense politically. It could turn the years that the GOP now faces in the political wilderness into decades upon decades as a minority party. Hell, it could turn them into the Whigs, destined for the trash heap of history. And when it comes to pure politics on a Machiavellian scale, the Republican Party is far from stupid. The movers and shakers have to know how much damage a public option could do to them, and that's why they fight so vociferously against it; not because of some sense of fiscal discipline, but out of simple self-preservation.
Contact Dan Sweeney at firstname.lastname@example.org