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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

A Counterfactual Scenario



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Matt Steinglass writes:

Of course Mr Douthat is not a passive spectator on this issue. He’s a leading conservative opinion writer. If he wants to help make sure that health-care reform doesn’t increase the deficit, he can start encouraging Republican members of Congress to vote to make sure Medicare payments actually get cut, and to make sure that the tax on Cadillac health-insurance plans actually kicks in. It would be much better for the country if Republicans devoted their energies to working to improve the health-care reform that’s just been passed, rather than sitting back and watching with the intention of blaming it on Democrats if it fails.

Consider the obvious parallel:

Of course Mr ______ is not a passive spectator on this issue. He’s a leading liberal opinion writer. If he wants to help make sure that the Bush tax cuts doesn’t increase the deficit, he can start encouraging Democratic members of Congress to vote to make sure entitlements actually get cut. It would be much better for the country if Democrats devoted their energies to working to improve the government-shrinking reform that’s just been passed, rather than sitting back and watching with the intention of blaming it on Republicans if it fails.

Remember the enthusiasm with which congressional Democrats scrambled to make the Bush tax cuts work by backing sweeping spending cuts? It was a remarkable display of bipartisan comity, and clear evidence of the fact that one party is more virtuous and public-spirited than the other. Wait a second …

To be sure, one could argue that the Bush tax cuts were so profoundly unwise that there was no sense in “making them work.” Rather, the only responsible course of action was to defeat congressional Republicans, and to elect a Democratic president who would then … continue all of the Bush tax cuts for middle and working class families. I was going to say “repeal them,” but that, alas, was never really on the table.

But you see my point. Many conservatives see the health reform legislation as profoundly unwise. The real motivation, as Rich Lowry has explained, was the desire to expand insurance coverage, which is admirable. In pursuit of this goal, we’ve seen a bill tailored to game the CBO process just as complex financial instruments are tailored to pass muster with rating agencies. 

P.S. Elsewhere in the post, Steinglass writes:

We all have a tendency to let our political team instincts overwhelm our ability to analyse substantive policy issues. Heck, during the presidential campaign we demonised John McCain and Douglas Holtz-Eakin’s health-care reform proposal for doing away with the employer health-insurance tax exclusion; in the cold light of day, it became clear that wasn’t such a crazy idea, and we limit the exclusion as part of our plan. This isn’t so much hypocrisy as the natural heat of political competition. But once the contest is over, you have to be able to put the rhetoric behind you, take a serious look at what’s just happened, and ask yourself where you go from here.

The “we” is interesting. Does the “we” reference the author, the left, the Democrats in Congress, The Economist? If it is fair demonize reasonable proposals, one wonders what else can be forgiven in light of the “natural heat of political competition”? The rest of this observation writes itself.

I’ll note that many of us defended aspects of the Obama campaign’s proposal, not least because it didn’t include an individual mandate. Moreover, some of us criticized the excesses of the Bush administration’s fiscal policy, including the size and structure of the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Also, some of us believed that capping or eliminating the employer health-insurance tax exclusion was a good idea because it would help restrain costs, whether it was advanced by one political party or another. If the natural heat of political competition so clouds one’s judgment, it is possible that one should not comment on matters concerning economic policy — just as a kind of safety precaution. 

This, by the way, is part of why I’m far more reluctant to support military interventions than I had been in the past. 



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