Critical Condition

Stay Wonky, TNR

The editorial in the August 12 New Republic argues that our health-care debate has become too enmeshed in policy details rather than personal anecdote:

The focus on policy minutiae has crowded out part of the big picture. Health care has become almost entirely a technical discussion, rather than a personal one. It’s all about deficit neutrality and bending the curve, instead of making sure every American can get affordable medical care.

This seems to me to be a strange argument for the wonky New Republic to make. In fact, one of the reasons I read and enjoy TNR is because they are policy-heavy, and cause me to challenge my thinking. This is not a one-time development, either, but something of a recent trend for TNR. Harold Pollack even contributed “What We Lose When We Get Wonky,” in which he tells his fellow liberals “In conceding ground to a dry policy discourse that downplays the moral urgency of collective obligation, we unilaterally surrender some of the best moral and political arguments for health reform.” It leads one to wonder if liberals are backing away from the details of the health debate because they appear to be losing the arguments on the technical questions. Worse, these losses are often coming at the hands of the uber-wonky and non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Another recent article by Pollack calls for keeping the taxpayer exclusion on employer provided health plans, which is uncapped, and therefore helps subsidize the so-called “cadillac” plans that unions want to preserve. I opened the article with interest, wondering if I would find a policy case that I had not considered for maintaining the uncapped exclusion. Instead, I found that Pollack’s primary reason for keeping it as is was that he thought the president would be “wise to remember who his friends really are. He might be Senator Obama right now, were it not for the massive support he received from organized labor in the 2008 campaign.” Really? That’s the key reason? Even when Pollack deigned to talk about policy details, the reasoning was uncharacteristically weak for TNR, as Pollack said that “employer-based coverage solves real problems of efficiency and risk-pooling for millions of people.” Here we agree, but putting a cap on that exclusion does not mean the end of the employer-based system. And even if it did, Pollack does not offer any substantive arguments making the case that capping the exclusion would have that effect.

Let me answer the wonkiness question for TNR, then. What TNR loses by getting wonky is nothing; if, however, it gives up wonky, it loses its raison d’etre. Stay wonky, TNR. Otherwise, we might as might as well read the Daily Kos.

Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book is Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.