Conservatives and Republicans on Sunday suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s. It's hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the disaster. Conservatives may cheer themselves that they'll compensate for Barack Obama's health-care vote with a big win in the November, 2010 elections. But:
-It's a good bet that conservatives are over-optimistic about November--by then the economy will have improved and the immediate goodies in the health-care bill will be reaching key voting blocs.
-So what? Legislative majorities come and go. This health-care bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now.
So far, I think a lot of conservatives will agree with me. Now comes the hard lesson: A huge part of the blame for today's disaster attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves.
At the beginning of this process, we made a strategic decision: Unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when president George W. Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama's Waterloo--just as health care was Bill Clinton's in 1994.
Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton's 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course, the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.
This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended up with none.
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 conservative Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.
Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views?
To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise--without weighing so heavily on small business--without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law. No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans score a 1994-style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to reopen the "doughnut hole" and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25-year-olds from their parents' insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there--would President Obama sign such a repeal?
We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.
There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or--more exactly--with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?
I've been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters--but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead.
Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say--but what is equally true--is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed--if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office--Rush's listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
So Sunday's defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it's mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it's Waterloo all right: ours.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.