This is silly.
A recap, to begin. The Tea Party and limited-government folks are right that we are at a great crisis point in the life of the republic. The “moderate” or “establishment” conservatives are right that there is a limit to what can be done at the moment within the constraints of law.
But two things really need doing. One is dealing with the problem immediately before us. Obamacare is an unmitigated disaster, and if Republicans don’t try to do something measured and reasonable about that in the next 12 months, we really are the Stupidest Party that ever put up a banner. The people are feeling the hurt right now, today. “Ted Cruz” is not an all-purpose excuse for GOP inaction or paralysis between now and November 2014.
Undoubtedly, Obamacare is a hydra-headed monster, and hardly anyone has a concrete idea of everything that’s supposed to happen with it in fiscal year 2014, beyond the deadlines for insurance-policy coverage conformity and individual enrollment. But that, in turn, is not an excuse for simply throwing up our hands. What a leader would do is stop staring at the cauldron, searching its bubbling surface for clues, and decide what he wants. Then find a way, using due process, to make something as close to it as possible happen.
An interim plan: stop the bleeding
Here, in the broadest of strokes, is what I want. I want a comprehensive postponement of almost everything related to the current Obamacare roll-out sequence, until after 1 January 2015. I say “almost everything,” because penalizing people with pre-existing conditions who have already signed up for insurance under the new exchanges – federal or state – would be both inhuman and bad politics. Provision needs to be made for them, to bridge the interim between now and Repeal-Replace. (Congressional Republicans have introduced multiple proposals over the last two decades to provide health-care support for the hard to insure; it is no stretch to have a care for their predicament, and there are concepts ready to pull off the shelf.)
Some provision is also needed for graceful departures from a suddenly oversubscribed Medicaid program. There aren’t that many people involved, however, and shifts away from current private insurance policies haven’t become effective yet; that happens on 1 January 2014.
Each day that goes by makes it harder to recover from the tailspin the Obamacare roll-out has put us into. But it’s not too late, in early November 2013, to make sure that people’s current insurance policies don’t have to be cancelled on 31 December 2013. Action must be taken now.
This is something Republicans could get at least some Democratic support for. An important point about pushing for congressional action is that that’s the due process of law way to address problems with legislation. Alleviating the body blows from Obamacare should not be left to the president’s highly selective “discretion.”
That’s why any Republican plan should address the entire FY2014 roll-out, and not just the “coverage” element that affects people’s current insurance policies. “Piecemealing” the interim fix is a reactive approach that forfeits leadership and initiative; it should be a fallback for the GOP, and not the going-in proposition.
Could a comprehensive postponement attempt by Republicans fail? Yes. Obama and a coalition of enough Democrats could defeat it. But it might not fail – and in any case, there’s no effort that would be more right to make, or that would make a bigger impression on the people.
Looking to the future
The other thing that needs doing is articulating a conservative, Republican message going forward. The sheer scope of opportunity here is tremendous. America is being confronted with a most remarkable development: a lurching, explosive, carelessly destructive attempt to institute a collectivist program in full view of a watching, still intact, still-undeceived middle class. It’s a coup against our way of life, being perpetrated not with guns in the streets but with letters in our mailboxes. What’s going on can’t be spun. If you’re tuned in at all, whatever you can see of it looks wrong. It doesn’t fit.
Americans, still essentially an optimistic, good-hearted people, want to see a way ahead that fixes the problem peacefully. But more than that, they are reflective and concerned right now, uncertain as to how we got to this point. If this isn’t a teachable moment, I don’t know what is.
Themes like how irrational Senator Ted Cruz is, or how complacent Mr. Rich Lowry is, are of no use at a time like this, to people who are losing their health insurance and are just waking up to the fact that their government is making that happen.
Nor is there a high payoff, for effective political leadership, in harping exclusively on the tech aspects of the Obamacare exchange website. Although Jay Leno can always find adorably confused citizens to interview, most people aren’t clueless. They recognize, quite sensibly, that you address tech failures by hiring experts. Tech failures are not a reason to vote for different political representation, or to change your view of what government is for.
Making the case for an idea of government is the central task that lies before Republicans. Triangulated formulations – e.g., “Not the Democrats’ vision, but definitely not what those other [fill in the blank] Republicans want either” – are losers. If you find yourself railing against the supposedly off-putting nature of your fellow Republicans, you’ve backed into an echo chamber, and it’s time to take a break.
Instead, Republicans should be focusing on the problems created by government, where the people are running into it every day and being stymied and discouraged by it. In arguing against intrusive, hyperregulatory government, the basic message should be that the people will grow themselves out of most of our problems, if the regulatory clamps on their productive activities are loosened.
The leader of 2014 will address the places where people are hurting right now, without taking gratuitous swipes at things that can be left for later discussion (e.g., restructuring Social Security; competing philosophies of jurisprudence; auditing the Fed). Nevertheless, he or she shouldn’t shrink from addressing the principles that might govern these issues, if constituents bring them up. Americans are losing a common vocabulary for politics and public issues – consider, for example, what different meanings Democrats and Republicans assign to the concept of “leveling the playing field” – and a key element of leadership is defining terms. “Preparing the battlespace” for future debates will entail communicating principle, and thriving in a cycle of persuasion and pushback.
Sticking only to talking points comes off as shallow and manipulative in the best of circumstances. The people are unusually ready to talk about the philosophy of government right now, and the emerging leader will be not just prepared but eager to do that, recognizing it as an unparalleled opportunity. Beyond comfort with philosophical talk about government, however, the leader who connects with the voters will be someone who genuinely loves what the people can do with freedom, and who speaks compellingly about it.
The animating idea of America is not government; it’s liberty. If Republicans want to be the party of hope and a future, our politics and proposals must all map back to that. Some amount of intramural discord is inevitable, in the party that actually is America’s Big Tent. But public squabbles over strategy and personalities don’t look like hope or a future to anyone. Neither infighting nor catering defensively to identity politics is the winning posture for the GOP; the winning posture is celebrating and protecting liberty.