The Allure of Bipartisanship


Could Republicans have avoided the ObamaCare catastrophe if they'd played nice, bought in, and worked with Democrats to pass a smaller, bipartisan bill? That's essentially what former Bush speechwriter David Frum alleges in this piece, which Jake Tapper reports is being distributed to reporters by the White House. It's no surprise that the Obama administration likes Frum's argument: What he says, basically, is that by following the most conservative voices and refusing to cooperate with Democrats, the GOP assured that the most progressive possible bill is what would pass.

A huge part of the blame for today's disaster attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves.

…Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

…We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

Frum is concerned with GOP party prospects and I'm not, and that's certainly going to affect how we approach the matter. But here's the problem I have with his argument: RomneyCare may have been developed with Republican establishment support, but if your focus is good policy rather than good politics, it's not worth defending. Neither would any potential compromise along similar lines have been.

Frum doesn't spell out exactly what deal he thinks Republicans should've cut, but the ground that he's implicitly suggesting should've been given up was basically the whole enchilada: the insurance mandate, the subsidies, the government run and regulated marketplaces, the expansion of Medicaid. These are rotten policies that, in just a few years, have already had rotten outcomes. What would have been gained by ObamaCare opponents caving and supporting something along these lines?

The best precedent for a Frum-style strategy of selling out compromise is probably Medicare Part D. That bill picked up support from genuine fiscal conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan because the understanding was that, if this version doesn't pass, something bigger and worse will. As a political calculation, this makes sense. But the end result wasn't one to be proud of: We still ended up with a poorly designed, unsustainable, potentially disastrous policy. If ObamaCare opponents had compromised, that's all they would have succeeded in passing here. Fine, you might say, but that's what we got anyway! Fair enough. But unlike the current situation, they would have been responsible for those outcomes, would have given liberals political cover, and ultimately put themselves in a far weaker position to push for reforms.