‐ Ted Cruz read Green Eggs and Ham to the Senate, and for all they know it could have been a chapter of the Affordable Care Act.
‐ Aaron Alexis, who murdered twelve people at the Washington Navy Yard before being killed himself, added one more horror to the list of recent mass shootings—Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech. Like his fellow killers, Alexis was mentally unbalanced. He had been discharged from the Navy Reserve in 2011 for what was blandly called a “pattern of misbehavior.” In 2010, he was arrested in Fort Worth for discharging a firearm in his apartment because his upstairs neighbor was too noisy; in 2004, he was arrested in Seattle for shooting out the tires of someone else’s car during what detectives called a “blackout.” Notwithstanding these episodes, Alexis, an information technologist who worked for a subcontractor, had a security clearance and was able to slip a shotgun—a weapon that not even ardent gun controllers wish to ban—with him into the Navy Yard. America’s decades-long experiment with deinstitutionalizing mental patients has brought chaos to their lives and death to others when the disturbed are violent. Treatment can be more sophisticated than the warehousing of the old days, but treatment there must be.
‐ The president wanted to nominate Lawrence Summers as Fed chairman, but a rebellion in his party forced Summers to withdraw. Obama is weak these days, so an appointment that in previous administrations would have been effectively his alone to bestow is now out of his control. And the Left feels itself resurgent: Bill de Blasio, a sandalista back in the day, is likely to be New York City’s next mayor. A man who in the 1990s supported deregulation in some portions of the financial world, as Summers did, was not going to get a pass from them. And feminists wanted a woman. So now Obama is likely to pick Janet Yellen. Compared with Summers, she has more expertise on monetary policy and works better with others. She does not appear to share his view that the Fed has already done everything it can do to promote economic recovery. So the Fed and the country may come out ahead from this trade, if only by accident.
‐ Markets had expected the Fed to “taper,” or begin slowing down its asset purchases, this fall. That expectation had driven stocks down. The Fed then surprised the world by delaying the taper, and markets rose. These reactions strengthened the common theory that Wall Street is addicted to easy money from the Fed. In the past, though, stocks have not always risen when the Fed has loosened. What the market has been saying in recent years is that tightening when unemployment is high and inflation is low would keep the economy depressed longer. The problem with the Fed’s latest move is that it was a surprise, and a portent of future surprises: Markets are more in the dark than ever about the Fed’s intentions. Time for a predictable rule.
‐ In the past year, we have learned that the Benghazi installation’s status as a “temporary” facility meant it was exempt from commonsense security requirements. The mission of the personnel out there—perhaps two dozen CIA, if a CNN report is accurate—remains unclear, although some reports suggest it related to reclaiming anti-aircraft missiles smuggled into Libya during the civil war. We still have no explanation as to why a German-based Commander’s In-extremis Force was moved to Italy that night but never deployed to Libya, although last year CBS reported that State Department “concerns about violating Libyan sovereignty made a military rescue mission impractical.” No one on the ground in Benghazi reported a public protest, leaving no clear explanation of how that became the centerpiece of the administration storyline on the attacks. The State Department’s Accountability Review Board fulfilled its task of creating a simulation of accountability without tainting any of the higher-level officials with blame; four mid-level officials were put on paid leave and then reinstated. No one at the State Department ever missed a paycheck for his decisions about security at the Benghazi facility. One year later, none of the murderers of four Americans has been arrested, jailed, or executed. It is a barbarity blurred by lies, unavenged.
‐ While Republican presidential candidates and individual Republicans in Congress have advanced ambitious plans to introduce free-market principles into health care, congressional Republicans as a group have not taken them up. So it is good news that the 175 House Republicans in the conservative Republican Study Committee have taken on the issue, and especially that they have tackled the tax code’s treatment of health insurance. The federal government’s encouragement of open-ended insurance coverage provided by employers is the root of much of what is wrong with health-care markets, and did a lot to make the passage of Obamacare possible. The RSC plan levels the playing field so that people who buy insurance for themselves get the same tax break as people who join their company’s plan, and people who buy cheap policies get the same tax break as people who buy expensive ones. It also allows insurers to sell across state lines, bypassing state regulators. The plan has its flaws. It increases federal power over medical-malpractice laws, for one, and it doesn’t do quite enough to make insurance more affordable—but it makes a good start. It is certainly better than Obamacare, and may hasten the day of its demise.
‐ The Obama administration has been free in handing out waivers from the health-care law, but it finally said no to a key ally. Labor unions wanted the law to be rewritten to protect union-negotiated health-care plans. Obama personally called AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to make sure the union would not come out against the health-care law at its September convention, then turned down the waiver request once the convention was over. The unions should have known how the law was going to affect them when they were lobbying for it, but we will be happy to welcome them to the repeal coalition once they recognize that they have been played.
‐ Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts chain, is among the more than 200 plaintiffs suing the Obama administration over its mandate that employers provide insurance coverage for sterilization, contraception, and drugs that may induce abortion. It is owned by a Christian family who say that paying for abortion-inducing drugs violates their religious beliefs. The company won a temporary injunction from the Tenth Circuit in June against complying with the mandate. Now the Obama administration has announced it will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. At issue is whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects for-profit corporations. Appellate judges have been divided on this question. The Supreme Court has in the past unanimously rebuffed the Obama administration’s efforts to circumscribe religious liberty, and we wish the administration the same success this time.
#page#‐National Review sued Newark mayor and aspiring senator Cory Booker and the city of Newark after our Eliana Johnson had difficulty obtaining a police report on the murder of Wazn Miller, a 19-year-old who was gunned down between two housing projects in 2004. Booker himself has told Miller’s story numerous times on the stump. As he tells it, he heard gunshots, ran toward them, and just happened to arrive on the scene in time for Miller to fall “into my arms.” The mayor held the boy there, tending to his wounds, until paramedics arrived. But it was too late: “He was dead,” Booker has said. The police report flatly contradicts these claims, indicating instead that a woman held Miller until an ambulance arrived and that the victim did not die in Booker’s arms but “expired from his injuries” at the hospital. The New York Post has done more digging, tracking down two witnesses, one of whom called Booker’s self-described heroics a “ploy” and a “big act.” Our bet is that, just as Booker dropped the drug dealer T-Bone from his speeches, he will never again tell an audience about catching Wazn Miller in his arms.
‐ Remember the good old days when a candidate’s hesitation to release his tax returns was treated as a genuine scandal? That was long ago, in 2012. Rather than release his returns, Mayor Booker allowed nine reporters hand-picked by his campaign to examine them in a hotel ballroom in Newark. They had three hours—no photographs, no copies, no removing the documents from the room—resulting in what one of the reporters present described as a mad scramble to record information as the clock ticked to zero. This, his campaign trumpeted as a “historic gesture of transparency.” Booker is also refusing to release the confidential separation agreement he struck with his old law firm, which netted him nearly $700,000 around the time the firm raked in over $2 million from two city agencies. Booker’s relationship with those agencies is, suffice it to say, cozy. He personally sat on the board of one while his former law partner served as its general counsel. His chief of staff simultaneously serves as chairman of the board of the other. Booker owes the people of New Jersey a full and open accounting of his relationship with the firm. As for that “historic gesture of transparency,” it is a gesture, all right: a not-very-polite one in the faces of New Jersey’s voters.
‐ Republicans under the leadership of Eric Cantor have proposed some modest controls on the food-stamp program, which has in recent years seen its client list double and its spending quadruple. Post-recession economic weakness—thank you, Obamanomics—explains only part of this spike. Cantor’s bill would place limitations upon so-called categorical eligibility, the practice of offering food stamps to households that are eligible for some other form of assistance, regardless of their incomes. Some states offer food stamps to households that simply have received a welfare-benefits brochure in the mail. The House bill also would impose modest work requirements on long-term food-stamp recipients who are able-bodied adults without dependent children. While the ledger cost of welfare is enormous, the real cost must account for the economic impacts of long-term separation from the work force, which is devastating for individuals and their families, not to mention a drag on the national economy. Earlier welfare-reform programs have seen good results from work requirements—at least when government is willing to enforce them—and applying them to food stamps makes sense. The bill has Democrats telling tales from Dickens, but then they always are.
‐ Pope Francis caused a stir with some recent comments in an interview. He said that the Church did not need to talk about abortion, homosexuality, and contraception all the time, and should present its teaching on these issues as part of its broader Gospel message. Liberals cheered these words, while conservative Catholics noted that they agreed with them—and were happy to hear the pope restate his strong opposition to abortion a day after the interview was released. One possible implication of the pope’s comment that the Church should not be “obsessed” with these issues, though, is that the Church has been—which would be a calumny. The press may be obsessed with them, but the average Western Catholic can live a long life, attending Mass every Sunday, without ever hearing a homily about contraception. Garnering less attention were more words pleasing to liberals, this time in off-the-cuff remarks in Sardinia the same week. He spoke there of economics, and nothing he said that was intelligible was objectionable. Not everything he said, alas, was. “We want a just system, a system that lets all of us get ahead. We don’t want this globalized economic system that does us so much harm. At its center there should be man and woman, as God wants, and not money.” What is the pope’s alternative to “this globalized economic system”? Is it a reversal of the trade liberalization and expansion of markets that has helped bring an unprecedented number of people around the world out of poverty? And while money should not be the center of anyone’s life, what can it mean to have an economic system that does not have at its center how men and women get and use money? Perhaps Francis is exercising his teaching office very subtly indeed, reminding Catholics that the Church does not teach that the pope is generally infallible.
#page#Obamacare vs. Work
On October 1, open enrollment in Obamacare’s health-insurance marketplaces is scheduled to begin. The opening of exchanges, and the beginning of coverage on January 1, will bring many changes to the health-care and insurance markets in the U.S. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Tom Miller recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee about how the law will discourage new start-ups, encourage insurance providers to consolidate, and make insurance more costly, with fewer options for individuals.
As important as the law’s effect on health-care markets will be, we should not continue to ignore its effects on the labor market. These are likely to be large. Casey Mulligan, an economist at the University of Chicago, has recently documented an important untold story about the Affordable Care Act: It is a historically large disincentive to work.
The nearby chart shows Mulligan’s estimates of the marginal tax rate on labor income by year for the median non-elderly person filing as a head of household or spouse. Mulligan’s calculations are quite thorough and factor in the benefits that a nonworking person loses if he decides to work. For example, if he gets $50 a week in food stamps while unemployed but loses them when employed, then the benefit of working is $50 per week lower than it otherwise would be.
Mulligan performs the calculations for a hypothetical person who in 2007 made about $790 per week (the median wage in that year for a non-elderly household head or spouse who was working). As is clear in the chart, the marginal tax rate on labor income increases by about four percentage points in 2014 alone, with an increase of about one percentage point the following year. This jump is due to certain provisions of the ACA that go into effect in 2014 and 2015, such as the employer-mandate penalties, health-care exchanges, and subsidies.
Mulligan discusses a number of examples that illustrate the channel through which taxes are increased. If a worker is part-time and does not receive insurance from his employer, he is eligible for premium support from the government. If he works harder and becomes a full-time employee, then he can lose this subsidy and his extra labor is therefore implicitly taxed. If he were to work fewer hours per week—say, moving from 35 to 29 hours per week—he might make slightly less money, but he would be eligible for the health-care subsidy if he lost employer insurance, and he would have more leisure time. Mulligan finds that workers may often be able to increase their after-tax income by working less.
Labor-force participation is already lower than at any point since 1980, and the number of workers as a proportion of the population has remained persistently low since the start of the Great Recession. The health-care law will make an already grim situation worse. The rewards for work are about to plummet, and one can be sure that the fraction of Americans working will drop as well.
#page#‐ The Catholic bishops of the U.S. are urging their parishioners to support the Senate immigration bill. We should “welcome the stranger,” they say, and treat newcomers with justice and compassion. That is surely true. The Church also, however, urges policymakers to be mindful of the needs of the poor. A massive increase in immigration seems likely to put pressure on the wages of low-income workers, natives and newcomers alike. It would retard assimilation, which makes it harder to give the stranger a true welcome. And offering legal status to illegal immigrants before making sure that the law can be enforced in the future undermines the government’s ability to secure the borders, a duty the Church acknowledges. On some issues, notably abortion, the policy implications of the moral norms the Catholic Church defends are fairly simple and straightforward: If unborn children are human beings made in the image of God, then it cannot be right to let them be killed with impunity. Illegal immigrants, too, are human beings made in the image of God, but the crucial questions of public policy the U.S. is weighing do not involve any dispute over that truth. Faithful Catholics can certainly reach the conclusions favored by the bishops. Both they and other people of good will can also reject those conclusions, which seems much the wiser course.
‐ The Environmental Protection Agency has announced new standards for electricity generators: standards that will in effect forbid the construction of traditional coal-fired plants and could force the closure of existing plants if, as planned, the new standards eventually are applied retroactively to them. The legal basis for this action is questionable, based on a willful misreading of the Clean Air Act, while the economic basis is more questionable still—and the environmental basis is nonexistent. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy says that these new standards can be met through the installation of new carbon-capture equipment—which currently is in use in no commercial facility anywhere in the world—and that they are necessary to combat the menace of global warming. The Clean Air Act requires a cost-benefit analysis of new rules issued under it, and it is impossible that a robust analysis has been conducted, since the costs cannot be known, given that the technologies are not in commercial use, their effectiveness and operating expenses untested in the real world. As for benefits: There are many greenhouse gases, and carbon dioxide, at issue here, is only one. About 85 percent of carbon dioxide emissions globally are from non-U.S. sources, and power generators are responsible for only about a third of U.S. emissions. Given that global warming is, if it is anything, global, even substantial reductions in the emissions of new U.S. power plants will have negligible effects on the planet’s atmosphere. All cost, no benefit: That is the Obama administration’s energy policy.
‐ The indefensible persecution of former House GOP leader Tom DeLay has come to a close, with an appeals-court panel reaching the obvious conclusion: He committed no crime, did not come close to committing a crime, and was in fact attempting in good faith to comply with the law when a politically ambitious Democratic prosecutor in Austin railroaded him. The prosecutor had to convene three grand juries and keep them in the dark regarding the specifics of the law in order to obtain his indictment and subsequent conviction. DeLay was accused of violating a law that had not been passed at the time he was alleged to have broken it, and when that indictment was thrown out, he was accused of money laundering—even though under the law there can be no money laundering if the money in question is not the result of a violation of the law. For this reason, the appeals court threw out the conviction. Tom DeLay has been vindicated, but the American criminal-justice system has been indicted.
‐ Last month, members of the Kenosha Education Association, Wisconsin’s third-largest teachers’ union, voted against recertifying the union as a bargaining entity. According to news sources, only about 37 percent of the district’s teachers voted to remain in a union, a result in line with what Governor Scott Walker predicted when he moved in 2011 to rein in public-sector collective bargaining. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin Education Association Council—the state’s primary teachers’ union—has lost more than 50 percent of its 98,000 dues-paying members since Walker implemented collective-bargaining reform. The powerful Wisconsin State Employees Union is now down from 22,000 members to between 9,000 and 10,000, according to the union’s president. During the high-profile protests that consumed the state for much of 2011, public workers surrounded the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison and unceasingly chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!” Now that workers are voting themselves out of forced unionization, organized labor is finally getting a taste of the genuine democratic process at work.
‐ Somali terrorists attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, murdering over 60 victims (the death toll was not clear at press time). The Kenyan army, reportedly helped by the FBI and Israeli special forces, took days to capture or kill the attackers. It was the worst terrorist violence in Kenya since al-Qaeda blew up the American embassy in 1998. The terrorists, called al-Shabab, have been fighting for control of the southern end of the collapsed state of Somalia; Kenya helped drive them from the port of Kismayo last year. Al-Shabab is allied with al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate; its killers are a crowd of pious malcontents, many drawn from the Muslim diaspora. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who lost a nephew in the attack, called al-Shabab “a criminal bunch of cowards” and vowed to “punish the masterminds swiftly and indeed very painfully.” The United States should do all it can to help him, and be on the watch for copycat plots here (one target for al-Shabab recruiters is Somali immigrants in Minnesota).
#page#‐ The well-named Court for Urgent Matters in Cairo has banned the Muslim Brotherhood and all organizations associated with it, and has frozen its assets. This exclusion from the political and social life of Egypt is indeed an Urgent Matter, because the Brotherhood’s ideal of an Islamist state is an end whose achievement justifies all available means of violence and terror. In their watchword, they have “the desire for death through self-sacrifice.” Most Egyptians understood quickly and very clearly that it had been a catastrophe to vote in the Muslim Brotherhood rule of former president Mohamed Morsi, which is why they have turned to the army for rescue. The showdown between the Islamists and everyone else could very well develop into civil war. General Abdul Fattah Sisi first ordered the dismantling of Muslim Brotherhood barricades at the cost of about 1,000 dead, and then mass arrests of its leaders. Those who are still at large boast that, in its history, the movement has often been banned but only grown stronger underground. Meanwhile the Brotherhood’s strategy is to go all out, setting improvised explosives, preparing suicide squads, and threatening to burn Christians alive. Their spiritual leader, the elderly Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, has a refuge in Qatar and, according to reports, faces certain arrest for inciting armed rebellion if he should return to Egypt. What’s at stake here is the future not just of Egypt but of Islamism.
‐ An impressive number of German voters have just agreed that Mutti knows best, handing Angela Merkel a third term as chancellor and, added a few wags, another stint as empress of a few beggar nations besides. But a shadow was cast over Merkel’s triumph by the eclipse of the free-market(ish) FDP, the third leg of the outgoing governing coalition. The FDP’s inability to cross the threshold needed for its return to the Bundestag means that Merkel needs to land another partner if she is to secure a parliamentary majority. At the time of writing, the most likely candidate was the center-left SPD, promising a rerun of the 2005–09 “Grand Coalition.” This is not wunderbar. A feature of the Merkel years has been her failure (no Iron Lady, she) to build on the supply-side reforms introduced at the beginning of the century, a failure that may be beginning to take a toll. The return of the SPD to government will act as an additional brake on reform. And then, of course, there’s Europe: The SPD will push Merkel in the direction of looser budgets and a tighter Europe. The politicians have not solved the continent’s economic crisis, and neither have the voters.
‐ Charles Xue is a Chinese-American entrepreneur, and he has also been one of China’s best-known and most popular bloggers. In late August, Chinese authorities arrested him for soliciting a prostitute. Whether he did or not, no one can say—that’s the way the law works in a police state. Xue was then made to appear on television, wearing handcuffs. He issued a brutal self-criticism, saying he had been “irresponsible” in writing about the government and society online. He said that people like him needed to be cracked down on, for the good of all. Such an episode may shock people in free countries who know little of the coercion—the physical coercion—that the Chinese state can bring to bear. But it surprises no one with experience of police states. The dictatorship in Beijing is doing all it can to make any criticism of it a crime. And it can do a lot.
‐ On British television, Doctor Who has been running for a half-century. Many actors have played the title character: eleven of them. A twelfth was recently hired. And some people aren’t happy about him—because he’s a him, and, worse, a white him. Said Dame Helen Mirren, famed for playing Elizabeth II and other memorable characters, “I do think it’s well over time to have a female Doctor Who. I think a gay, black, female Doctor Who would be the best of all.” The show’s producer said, “I would like to go on record and say that the queen should be played by a man.” Blimey, there’s lead in the British pencil yet.
‐ Discussing Immanuel Kant has always been dangerous in Russia. In the 1790s Ludwig Mehlman introduced the philosopher’s work at Moscow University, and for his troubles he was charged with mental illness, fired, and banished by the czar. Then just recently, in Rostov-on-Don, two men were discussing Kant while waiting in line to buy beer at a municipal festival, and when a disagreement developed, one of them felt a categorical imperative to shoot the other. He used an air gun with rubber bullets (presumably in case he later discovered a flaw in his reasoning), but his fellow debater was hospitalized nonetheless, and the shooter now faces up to ten years in prison—time enough, if he applies himself, to finally finish reading the Critique of Pure Reason.
‐ Since 2004, Constitution Day is celebrated on September 17 every year, and it’s not uncommon for people to pass out Constitutions on that day. Yet when Robert van Tuinen of Modesto Junior College in California began handing out copies of the Constitution, a campus police officer informed him that he needed permission to distribute materials on campus. Only after requesting permission a few days in advance would he be able to pass out any materials, and even then he could do so only in a designated “free-speech zone.” Upon being told this, Tuinen asked the officer, “Isn’t that a violation of my First Amendment rights?” The cop responded, “I don’t think so.” Well, officer, perhaps there’s something you should read . . .
‐ In the spirit of open academic discourse, mobs were convened at the City University of New York to scream obscenities at General David Petraeus, who is teaching a course there. The screams ranged from accusations of war crimes to old-fashioned profanity, and the mobsters promised to show up every time Petraeus showed up to teach his class. On the occasion of the general’s second appearance, police barricades had to be set up, and the students conducted a riot. This is an attempt to bully a visiting professor off of campus for holding views at odds with those of the lightly educated young ladies and gentlemen of CUNY, and no self-respecting university would put up with it.
‐ “America’s imperialism” was the reason that students at Middlebury College gave for pulling up the 2,977 American flags that had been planted in front of the chapel and library to commemorate the Americans who lost their lives in the attacks of September 11, 2001. The protesters objected that what they believe is a sacred Abenaki burial site was being desecrated. College administrators are not known to be unsympathetic to calls for greater sensitivity to the heritage of ethnic minorities. The protesters could have met with them to present their concern instead of acting out their late-adolescent high spirits and dragging the Abenaki people, whom they presumed to represent, into their desecration of the 9/11 memorial on their college campus.
‐ Mariano Rivera is retiring. The Yankees closer and all-time leader in saves is a throwback to an era when class meant something in baseball. Noted for his excellence and composure on the field and for his Christian service off it, he did the pinstripes proud.
Stumbling on Syria
President Obama says that his Syria policy is lacking only on “style.”
That is one way to put his repeated drawing of red lines over the use of chemical weapons, his crabwalk toward war, his about-face decision to seek congressional authorization for force, his utter inability to make the case for that authorization, and his desperate grasp at a Russian diplomatic initiative that took advantage of a gaffe by his secretary of state.
If this had been messy improvisation issuing in a glorious outcome, it would be one thing. But the substance is as dubious as the process. We are currently negotiating with the Russians on the exact parameters of the deal for the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons. If prior entanglements with rogue states over weapons of mass destruction are any guide, the negotiating will never end. The Syrians will niggle and delay to frustrate inspectors for years.
The accomplishment here is that Bashar Assad probably won’t again use his chemical weapons. But the deal puts any larger strategic goals out of reach. Our engagement with the regime to try to get it to carry out its stated obligations will make us its perverse quasi-partner. The more Western-oriented rebels feel betrayed, and there are signs that they are collapsing as extremist elements continue to gain. Meanwhile, Iran is not hesitating to train fighters for the proxy war in Syria that it intends to win. Iran and Hezbollah, along with their fellow traveler Russia, look even likelier to achieve their goal of preserving Assad than they did a month ago.
Vladimir Putin took to the pages of the New York Times to rub our noses in it. In an op-ed combining cynicism and sanctimony in a stomach-turning stew, the Russian president invoked the pope and international law to oppose U.S. intervention in Syria, never mind his arming of Assad in a civil war that has killed more than 100,000. He concluded with a jab at American exceptionalism, warning that no country is exceptional. He was too modest—Russia has proved exceptional over the centuries at centralizing unaccountable political authority and trampling individual rights.
The Syria episode is not that consequential in itself, but it nonetheless may be an inflection point in our standing in the world. A superpower should be trusted by its friends and feared by its enemies, and we are neither. Our position in the Middle East is collapsing, while the much-touted “pivot to Asia” looks more like a slogan than a strategy. The president cares most about “nation-building at home” and is clearly uncomfortable with the assertion of American power. This was unmistakable in his marble-mouthed case for a strike in Syria.
Credibility can seem an elusive commodity, but it is the coin of the realm in international relations. When we eroded our deterrent with ill-advised statements or acts of weakness, we got the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When our deterrent was at a high point in the immediate aftermath of our toppling Saddam Hussein, Libya gave up its nuclear program and, evidently, Iran temporarily stopped its uranium enrichment.
The price for our weakness will inevitably come.
Replace the Law, Replace the Strategy
Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) and his allies are right about Obamacare. They’re right that it’s bad for our economic prospects, our health care, and the relationship between our citizens and the federal government. They’re right to make the case against it—as Senator Cruz did for 21 hours standing on the Senate floor, in a magnificent performance that makes us glad to have backed his primary campaign. They’re right, finally, that Republicans need a strategy for repealing it. And they’re right that Republican leaders have not come up with one.
We wish we could say that Cruz and his allies have devised a workable strategy of their own. Instead, they want Republicans to refuse to vote for any legislation to fund the government unless it includes language denying funds to Obamacare. And if Democrats reject that condition and the government shuts down, Republicans should blame them for the shutdown and make the case against Obamacare until the Democrats relent. The history of the shutdowns of 1995–96—the real history, that is, not the revisionist version that some advocates of this strategy have persuaded themselves to believe—suggests that this plan is unlikely to work. It could even help President Obama, whose numbers have been falling all year, to make a comeback that will give a lift to his entire agenda.
Senator Cruz warns that once Obamacare’s subsidies start flowing, the program will be impossible to dislodge. This seems to us too pessimistic. The Congressional Budget Office suggests that 2 percent of the public will be getting subsidies in 2014. Many of them will still be paying more. And even those who come out ahead won’t see the subsidy themselves, since it goes to their insurer. Meanwhile, we can expect many of the larger number of people who encounter higher premiums, or a reduced choice of doctors, or involuntary movement to part-time work, to blame Obamacare.
It will certainly be hard to repeal Obamacare. Getting it passed took decades for the Democrats, along with control of the White House and both houses of Congress. Opponents of the law are going to have to win some elections to undo their work.
They also need to have a realistic sense of public opinion. More Americans oppose Obamacare than support it, and those numbers have been moving in the right direction since the law passed. But the polls on repealing the law in full are less consistent, and often show only minority support for the conservative position. Part of the explanation is surely status quo bias and wishful thinking: People who have not looked into the issue in detail may be under the illusion that the law can be “fixed,” when in fact its flaws are inherent in its basic structure. Too-low support for repeal almost certainly also reflects the public’s concern about the problems that Obamacare is supposed to address, and its lack of confidence that opponents of the law have better solutions to them.
The defunders make an excellent point when they say that Republicans should work to change public opinion and not just accept it, even if a shutdown is not the best context in which to try. The good news is that we are pushing on an open door: People are already predisposed against Obamacare. Republicans need to make it clear that there are better ideas on how to put health insurance within reach of more people, and how to care for people whose preexisting conditions lock them out of the market. Individual Republicans—Representative Paul Ryan (Wis.), Senator Tom Coburn (Okla.), and others—have advocated such solutions, but the congressional party as a whole has ignored them. The good news is that the 175 House conservatives in the Republican Study Committee have recently proposed a replacement for Obamacare that makes real progress on this front. The members of the RSC—who are, like other conservatives, divided over the shutdown strategy—are showing their fellow Republicans some of what they must do once it fails.
Leading on Tax Reform
Senator Mike Lee, the Utah conservative, announced an ambitious plan to reform taxes—much the most attractive one we have heard from any Republican for a long time.
The plan would cut tax rates, simplify the tax code, and rid it of several features that distort our economy and society. The tax increases that have taken place under President Obama would be undone. The mortgage-interest deduction would be scaled back. And the deduction for state and local taxes would be eliminated: Low-tax states would no longer subsidize high-tax ones, and the federal government would no longer soften voters’ incentives to elect less-profligate state politicians.
Senator Lee takes aim at another form of redistribution as well: the way the federal government transfers resources from larger families to smaller ones. Social Security and Medicare, he argues, reap benefits when adults make the financial sacrifices necessary to raise children, but they tax parents as though that contribution did not exist. Expanding the tax credit for children by $2,500 per child would begin to rectify that unfairness. It might also make it possible, he notes, for some parents to scale back their work hours to spend more time with their children. Or parents could use the additional money to help their families in other ways, as they see fit.
Senator Lee makes a strong case on the merits for his plan, but its political advantages do not escape him. The promise of middle-class tax relief has helped free-market politicians get elected in the past but has not featured much in Republican platforms in recent years. In part that is because of our fiscal predicament, of which the senator is certainly mindful: It’s why he has in the past also proposed specific spending cuts, and why his plan ends tax breaks as well as cuts taxes.
With this plan, the senator has taken an important step toward limiting government, promoting growth, and creating a conservative electoral majority.