On the occasion of the defeat of senator Bob Bennett in the Utah Republican primary, Ramesh Ponnuru and Ross Douthat have engaged in a debate about the merits of his proposed alternative to Obamacare, the Wyden-Bennett Healthy Americans Act. The funny thing is, they’re both right.
On the eve of the Utah primary, Ponnuru and the NR editors attacked Wyden-Bennett as “worse than [Obamacare] in some respects, but in the crucial respects it was simply identical.” And they have a point: Wyden-Bennett contains many of the key features of Obamacare, such as requiring insurers to cover people who are already sick (guaranteed issue), outlawing the practice of charging cheaper rates to the young (community rating), and forcing everyone to buy insurance (individual mandate). As has been shown in the states that have enacted guaranteed issue and community rating, health costs have exploded. Massachusetts has shown us that the individual mandate is of little use in addressing this problem, while coming at a severe cost to individual liberty.
There are, however, some good things about Wyden-Bennett: it would reduce health spending ($1.4 trillion over ten years, according to the Lewin Group); it would wholly replace the two state health programs for the poor (Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program); and would transition us out of the massively inefficient, employer-sponsored health insurance system.
So it’s fair for Douthat to ask: “Wyden-Bennett was not my preferred health care reform either, but was it really no better than Obamacare from a conservative perspective?” Indeed, it probably was better than Obamacare. But it’s far from clear that Wyden-Bennett would have been better than doing nothing: over time, its faults (federalizing the insurance system, exploding health-care costs) would likely have overwhelmed its qualities.
Douthat is right to cite NR’s 2008 endorsement of Mitt Romney as an example of GOP intellectual latitudinarianism:
A successful political party can live without lawmakers who are obsessed with compromise for compromise’s sake, trimmers who constantly shift leftward and rightward depending on the political winds, and politicians who by rights belong in the opposition party. (Hence my lack of sympathy for Charlie Crist, Arlen Specter, and Dede Scozzafava.) But it needs to accommodate intelligent deviations and disagreements, and well-intentioned efforts at bipartisanship from politicians who line up with their party 80 or 90 percent of the time.
Sen. Bennett’s bill, misguided as it was, can certainly be characterized as a genuine effort at bipartisan problem-solving, and for that he should be thanked. But, as Mitt Romney is finding out, the policy content of Wyden-Bennett would have compromised Bennett’s ability to speak out in 2010 and 2012 against Obamacare’s biggest flaws.
Given the critical importance of repealing the new law, that moral authority is paramount. And given the need for genuine reform, we can only hope that Bennett’s successor applies himself as robustly to the serious failings of our health-care system.