In Paul Krugman’s column on Monday, he went after those pundits who will never admit to being wrong, Nobody Said That. It is about this tendency for pundits to make predictions, and then, when they are shown to be wrong, to claim that they never made the prediction. Krugman focused on Obamacare. It is now common for people to claim, “Nobody ever said that Obamacare wouldn’t insure more people.” But of course, lots of people did just that — including Speaker of House John Boehner just one year ago.
What’s really going on here is that conservatives are not being honest when they make their arguments in the first place. As I’ve been saying for many years, the real conservative complaint about Obamacare has nothing to do with what they talk about. The law raises taxes on the rich. Conservatives are completely against that on principle. But the optics are terrible. Conservatives can’t go around saying that they hate a law that helps struggling workers just because millionaires can’t ever be taxed. So we got arguments about the tyranny of the individual mandate — an idea conservatives had supported just a few years earlier. And, of course, we got “Socialism!” and “Death Panels!” and all the other hysteria.
This pattern is something that I’m very used to with regards to libertarians. The classic minimum wage discussion with a libertarian goes as follows. The libertarian will say that the minimum wage costs jobs. When you point out that at its current rate it doesn’t cost jobs — or at least that the research on it doesn’t show much to support their claim — they change the argument. Now the libertarian will say that people should have the right to enter into any contract they want. These arguments always go from practical claims that are not supported to theoretical claims about values that cannot be countered with evidence.
The same thing is going on in the fight about Obamacare. Elites who hate the law could not care less about what the law is trying to accomplish. But most people aren’t interested in theoretical arguments. So they start with the practical claims. And the truth is that even the claims that it is “Socialism!” and “Will kill granny!” are practical claims that really can be countered with evidence — and have been! But there is a certain amount of brilliance on the part of conservatives with regard to this.
Critics of Obamacare always acknowledged that if the law got going, it would be impossible to stop. Once people are receiving benefits from a government program, they tend to like them. (This doesn’t stop conservative elites from continuing to try to kill Social Security and Medicare.) So it made sense to make dire predictions about the law that even they knew were rubbish. The same tactic was used to get us into the Iraq War. By the time the truth came out, those who wanted the war had succeeded.
But notice how different this is from the liberal movement, which for all its problems, is very practical. If Obamacare had failed to insure more people, if it had caused prices to go up, if it had tanked the economy, then something would have to be done. This is because the Democratic Party pushed Obamacare for practical reasons. It wasn’t pushed — as many conservatives fatuously claim — just to make government bigger and control more people. The arguments for Obamacare were the actual reasons that supporters had for the law.
What continues to boggle my mind is that so many people vote for the Republican Party when it actually doesn’t talk straight. We have seen the case of Tea Partier James Webb who decided (briefly) to vote for the Democrats because of Obamacare. But I suspect in the end, the conservative movement will be fine because of what our good friend Ambrose Bierce knew a century ago, “Radicalism: the conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today.” Obamacare will become something that the conservative base depends upon (while its elites continue to look for ways to kill it). But the base will continue to vote for tax cuts for the rich in the name of whatever distractions the conservative elites are pimping at that time.
What’s important to remember is that for the conservative pundits, what they were saying over the last few years about Obamacare doesn’t matter. What they meant was that they didn’t like the law because it took money from the rich and gave it to the non-rich. That was always the issue. The practical arguments were just for the prols.