Ramesh Ponnuru is a remarkable conservative writer. I’ve used him more than any writer in my Quotations posts. And earlier this week, he was in fine form, Stop Waiting for Obamacare to Implode. Reading a bit between the lines, it is a devastating attack on Republican hubris.
Basically, he’s arguing that the Republican Party should have been working on a replacement plan for Obamacare all along. “The likelihood of replacement would be higher if there was an alternative that didn’t take away people’s insurance—one that promised to cover roughly as many people as Obamacare does, or even more.” And he concludes with a clever twist on the conservative meme that Obamacare is taking people’s choices away, “Opponents of Obamacare should always have been thinking along these lines. Now they have less and less choice.”
It’s good to see Ponnuru talk about this stuff. But he’s still living in a fantasy world. And I’m really not sure if he knows it or not. There is a question I have about the smarter conservative writers: are they really as clueless as they claim to be about what conservative politicians are doing? Because reading Ponnuru you can’t escape the impression that he thinks that conservative complaints about Obamacare are substantive. I mean, even his own idea is just a small variation on Obamacare that the administration is allowing Arkansas to do. Does he really think that if the law had been written that way for all states that conservatives would back it?
There are two things that are going on. First: Obamacare is the conservative healthcare reform plan. If conservatives are against it, it is because they are against healthcare reform. That brings up to the second thing. The Heritage Foundation plan on which Obamacare is based was only put out as a way to stop single payer. This is what Jonathan Chait calls, The Heritage Uncertainty Principle. He describes it thusly, “Conservative health-care-policy ideas reside in an uncertain state of quasi-existence. You can describe the policies in the abstract, sometimes even in detail, but any attempt to reproduce them in physical form will cause such proposals to disappear instantly.” So the thing is that conservatives don’t want healthcare reform at all. That’s why most of their proposals are just grab bags of policies they want for other reasons—like tort “reform.”
I think that Ponnuru, above all, is just a bit of a pragmatist. Like other conservatives, he would like to take from the poor and give to the rich because, “Freedom!” But he understands that at this point, with more people getting health insurance, the government can’t just take it away without causing a huge backlash. And thus, conservatives have to make the best of a bad situation. I’m sure he’s shouting at the wind, however. The modern conservative movement seems more interested in standing on principle than getting anything done.
That is actually entirely typical of the Obamacare legislation itself. If the Republican Party had decided to make the best of the situation, they could have gotten a bill that was more to their liking. But instead they went for it all and lost. But even as it stands, Obamacare is a conservative law. The old cliche is that politics is the art of the possible. So no one is ever fully happy with legislation. But modern Republicans apparently don’t think they can support anything unless they love it all. It goes back to John Boehner’s 2010 deal where he got 98% of what he wanted. That wasn’t enough.
So while it is nice to see Ponnuru applying a little practicality to politics, it’s depressing to watch him spend half of his article pandering to conservatives. He went through the normal things that conservatives talk about: the enrollment target doesn’t mean the program will work; it may not be actuarially stable; and it may not increase coverage of the uninsured. On that last point, we know that it actually has. But the whole thing is typical of the conservative movement. Ponnuru is a long time conservative—a senior editor for National Review—and yet he has to constantly assure conservative readers that he hasn’t left the reservation.
Of course, based on on Ponnuru’s article, I think he may be more positive about Obamacare than I am. I can’t get around the fact that there is a long line of legal challenges to the law. I tend to think that the law will muddle on through, however. The Supreme Court is dedicated to turning the United States into an oligarchy. But only three of the necessary five judges are absolutely committed to making the lives of working Americans “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” So we can be grateful for that. For now.