The Corner

The Permanence of Conservative Ideas

Norman Ornstein, my AEI colleague, apparently hasn’t gotten the memo from Bruce Bartlett that says  AEI’s censorious sponsors won’t tolerate deviation from the GOP playbook. In an column titled “The Great Socialist Smear” to rip into, among others, his AEI colleague Newt Gingrich on the issue of Obama and his alleged radicalism. Norm writes:

This story came to mind with the recent blizzard of attacks on Barack Obama by Republican presidential wannabes and other office-seekers, along with their allies on cable television and talk radio. The most extravagant rhetoric has come out of the gathering of Southern Republicans in New Orleans, led by former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who called Obama “the most radical president in American history” and urged his partisan audience to stop Obama’s “secular, socialist machine.”

I have a piece coming out in the next issue of Commentary on Obama and the Socialist label, so I’ll hold my fire on that score. I will say that while I pretty much disagree with Norm on all of this, I think he does a better job making the case for Obama’s moderation than most I’ve seen. On that score, he writes:

To one outside the partisan and ideological wars, charges of radicalism, socialism, retreat and surrender are, frankly, bizarre. The Democrats’ health-reform plan includes no public option and relies on managed competition through exchanges set up much like those for federal employees. The individual mandate in the plan sprang from a Heritage Foundation idea that was endorsed years ago by a range of conservatives and provided the backbone of the Massachusetts plan that was crafted and, until recently, heartily defended by Mitt Romney. It would be fair to describe the new act as Romneycare crossed with the managed-competition bill proposed in 1994 by Republican Sens. John Chafee, David Durenberger, Charles Grassley and Bob Dole — in other words, as a moderate Republican plan. Among its supporters is Durenberger, no one’s idea of a radical socialist.

I hear this sort of argument a lot, most often in the form of “How can Republicans be in lockstep opposition to ObamaCare when it contains so many Republican ideas?”

I find this wanting.  It might help score some rhetorical points on the claim that Obama’s plan isn’t “radical” but it goes nowhere in making the case that Republicans should have supported ObamaCare. I’m sure our friends at Heritage have a more wonky answer as to why they are not the intellectual authors of ObamaCare. But let’s stipulate that ObamaCare is fully faithful to an old idea of Heritage’s. So…what?

Tax withholding was partially invented by Milton Friedman. He ended up regretting what happened to his idea. Should conservatives embrace withholding as a good idea forever? Richard Nixon imposed wage  controls. Does that mean Republicans have no standing to complain when/if Obama introduces wage controls (as he basically has for the bailed out banks). Or, if you really want to get whacky, FDR rounded up American citizens of Japanese descent during wartime. Does that mean today’s Democrats have no good reason to oppose rounding up Arab or Muslim Americans? Of course not.

Conservatives were pretty split over RomneyCare at the outset. Now that the results are in, the near-settled consensus is that it was a well-intentioned but misguided approach (and it was at the state level, which changes the constitutional and philosophical issues considerably). It’s understandable why Romney wants to claim that RomneyCare was completely different than ObamaCare and a great success, but he’s increasingly alone in making that claim.

I’ve written a bunch about allegations of conservative closed-mindedness over the last 12 hours. Central to that charge is the contention that conservatives cling to old ideas despite the evidence. It seems to me to be the exact opposite of what’s actually happening. What was it John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”


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