The passionless party of no



Given all the obstructionist complaints and ideological catechisms uttered yesterday by Senate Finance Committee Republicans on the timely topic of health care reform, it's no wonder that the GOP continues to be held in such low esteem nationwide.

As the Senate Democrats prepare to go it virtually alone on reform legislation, amidst the predictable hardening of Republican opposition, it's worth taking note of the newly-released NBC-Wall Street Journal poll - in my estimation, the best of the nonpartisan surveys, because it is jointly conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Peter Hart. Even though the public continues to voice concerns about how President Obama is handling health reform, he is rated far higher than his implacable Republican opposition; whereas 45 percent of Americans endorse the way Obama is dealing with the issue, only 21 percent endorse the GOP's approach. And perceptions of the congressional parties are markedly different; whereas Americans generally give the Democrats a split verdict (41 percent view the party positively, 39 percent negatively), the verdict on the GOP is thumbs down (28 percent positive, 43 percent negative).

It's easy to diagnose the GOP's continued low standing. Despite the concerns that Americans may have about Obama's ambitions to reform health care, there is still a broad-based belief that the current system cries out to be fixed in some fashion...and yet, most Americans clearly understand that the Republicans have no passion for this issue whatsoever, and that, now as always, the Republicans would greatly prefer to do absolutely squat.

And the beat goes on. In the opening session of Senate Finance Committee deliberations yesterday, the GOP lawmakers were again true to their naysaying instincts. They complained that the reform effort was moving too quickly (it's been 61 years since Harry Truman called for health care reform); that the Democrats are pushing "artificial deadlines"; that the reform bill should be torn up so that everybody can start all over; that certain reform bill provisions (such as requiring all Americans, with appropriate federal help, to have health insurance, just as they are already required to carry auto insurance) constitute "a stunning assault on liberty" and an "intrusion into private lives." The best moment came when Jim Bunning, the lame duck Kentucky Republican, railed about how the reform effort simply "confiscates more money from taxpayers" - and within an hour, right in front of everybody, he literally fell asleep. The nap as metaphor.

Those kinds of complaints will obviously resonate with some Americans, albeit a minority. But there is a general awareness that the GOP's track record on safety-net issues has long been abysmal, dating back at least to 1935 (when they battled fiercely against the concept of Social Security) and 1965 (when they inveighed nonstop against the concept of Medicare). And then came the George W. Bush era, when the Republicans were even worse.

Until the Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill at the start of 2007, Bush was mostly dealing with a Republican Congress. During that entire period, the health care crisis was growing steadily worse; indeed, according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average annual premium for an employer-based family policy roughly doubled between 1999 and 2007. Yet what did Bush and the Republicans do on the reform front, when they had both the power and the opportunity?


And they did nothing (aside from enacting $1 trillion in Medicare prescription drug coverage) because, deep down, they are not particularly outraged that insurance companies are denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, or canceling sick people's coverage. These kinds of issues are not in their DNA. From time to time, of course, they have floated some proposals worthy of deliberation - such as maybe helping small businesses buy coverage; or maybe offering tax credits to families that want to buy coverage - but they never make these issues a priority when they're in power. They prefer to raise these issues only when the Democrats have the power and momentum - and then, only as tactics to obstruct what the sincere reformers are trying to do. Such as now.

When confronted with everyday hardship stories, they really don't have much to say. Classic case in point: Eric Cantor, one of the House Republican leaders. Several days ago, at a town hall meeting, a constituent told him the story of a close relative who had lost her high-paying job, and fallen seriously ill: "Just a couple of weeks ago, she found out that she has tumors in her belly and that she needs an operation. Her doctors told her that they are growing and that she needs to get this operation quickly. She has no insurance."

Cantor's response? The sick woman should perhaps seek "an existing government program." (Which is ironic, since the Republicans are ideologically dedicated to shrinking government programs.) He then added, "Beyond that, I know that there are programs, there are charitable organizations, there are hospitals here who do provide charity care if there’s an instance of indigency and the individual is not eligible for existing programs...No one in this country, given who we are, should be sitting without an option to be addressed." (Fascinating. His response was that the sick woman should find a government program, the kind that Republicans have always opposed, or turn to charity.)

What the Republicans are really turned on about, at the moment, is the aforementioned health reform provision requiring that all Americans carry health insurance or face penalties for failing to do so. The proposed penalties (a maximum of $1900 per family, slashed in half from the original proposal) would be defined by the IRS as a tax on noncompliance. The word tax is what has the GOP all excited; to borrow a baseball term, that kind of issue is right in their wheelhouse. (Senator Orrin Hatch: "If it looks like a tax and is enforced like a tax, it's a tax!") Naturally, by targeting this item, they're missing the bigger picture, which is that the typical insured American is already paying an annual de facto tax as high as $1000 just to subsidize the health care of those who are uninsured. And the proposed noncompliance tax would just target the lawbreakers, not everybody.

But talking taxes is what they do, as opposed to mending and strengthening the social fabric. This is why, for all of Obama's woes these last few months, most people think little of the GOP's handling of health care. They instinctively understand that if John McCain had been elected, along with a Republican Congress, there would have been a perpetuation of the dysfunctional status quo, with no impetus for anything better. And that, on Sept. 9, when the current minority Republicans stood at the rear of the House chamber while Obama is speaking, and waved copies of their "alternative bills," it was worse than a stunt. It was a fraud.


I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that the Republicans are passionate about something besides taxes. They are also passionate about that seminal threat to the republic, ACORN. Here's the latest evidence:

Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi (and a former national Republican chairman widely mentioned as possible veep choice in 2012), sought yesterday to get his ACORN fix by announcing that he intends "to cut off (state) funding to any current contracts" with ACORN.

But, as things turn out, there are several problems with Barbour's crusade: (1) ACORN, on its own initiative, closed its only Mississippi office seven months ago, and (2) Mississippi ACORN never got a dime of state money in the first place.