Bad Hand or Bad Play?
If Ramesh Ponnuru were a fan of Butler’s basketball team, which came within inches of knocking off mighty Duke for the national title, he would be complaining that their coach did a lousy job. That’s the only conclusion one can draw from his article “No Margin for Error” (April 19), in which he second-guesses every action taken by the congressional GOP leadership in its dogged, inspiring, but ultimately unsuccessful fight against Obamacare.
Facing a party with hefty majorities in both houses, the Republicans did an excellent job of exposing the program’s enormous cost, inherent unfairness, vast empowerment of government bureaucrats, and built-in inefficiency. In the end, as had been obvious all along, the Democrats had the votes; but the GOP made them sweat out each one with sleazy backroom deals, which is why the malodorous mess that resulted has been soundly rejected by the public. What else could they have done?
In fact, every supposed misstep that Ponnuru cites could equally well be called a canny strategic move. Blaming Republican “policy errors” for Obamacare’s passage assumes that if the GOP had come up with a better plan, congressmen and the public would have flocked to it. As Ponnuru surely knows, that’s nonsense. No Republican plan had any chance of being taken seriously, and only the negative features would have gotten any exposure in the media.
Bizarrely, Ponnuru says the Republicans’ success in killing the public option was actually a failure, because it made the plan seem more acceptable. The notion that bad conditions must be left intact to keep the public riled up is more commonly associated with Marxist revolutionaries than sober-minded conservatives. And why does Ponnuru think the public option would not have been dropped anyway in the final push, if that was what it took to get the odious bill passed? Or, alternatively, that Pelosi & Co. would not have succeeded in ramming it through, giving the Republicans one more provision to roll back in what will almost certainly be a piecemeal process? Moreover, if eliminating the public option was a mistake, why wasn’t passing the Stupak amendment against abortion funding also a mistake, for the same reason? And speaking of which, given Stupak’s final cave-in, why does Ponnuru think that funding pro-life advertising in targeted members’ districts would have changed a thing?
Finally, if it really is true that “conservatives grew complacent after Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts” (though the only two people who think so are Ponnuru and David Axelrod, whom he somewhat puzzlingly cites as a reliable source), this is just as likely to have been a good move as a bad one. Harping incessantly on health care for months on end would only have made the electorate grow tired of the whole subject; by saving their fire for the final fight, the Republicans guaranteed that the voters would be paying attention.
A more reasonable assessment would be that the GOP leadership held a weak hand in the health-care game but played it expertly, setting the party up to win a big pile of chips this November.
Ramesh Ponnuru replies: Republicans did a pretty good job, as Rumkowski writes. I just think they could have done better.