The effort by congressional Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare hit a major roadblock last week, as GOP senators on the left and right sides of the caucus declared their opposition to majority leader Mitch McConnell’s latest proposal. Jay Cost writes that it is hard to blame them for their unease.
“Obamacare was a hodgepodge of half-measures and false starts, but compared with the GOP alternatives it looks like a masterpiece of symmetry and sophistication.”
“Republican efforts to reform entitlements—halting as they have been—seem inevitably conjoined to an effort to cut taxes. In the early 1980s, when federal income tax rates were burdening the middle class, this could be seen as a populist position: Let’s help the working man take home more of his pay, and insist that nobody free-rides on Uncle Sam. But federal taxes have been cut repeatedly in the intervening decades, making it almost impossible to cut them more without primarily aiding the wealthy. This is about the worst possible message, from a public-relations angle, as it makes Republicans look like Robin Hood in reverse.
It would be understating the scope of this failure to suggest it is a problem of bad salesmanship. Republicans have little to sell, anyway. Far from spearheading a comprehensive effort to bring our Frankensteinian welfare state to heel, the party cannot even get the small stuff right. Conservative policy experts have done good research on health care in recent years—no doubt spurred by their dissatisfaction with Obamacare—but the congressional GOP seems to have largely ignored their endeavors. The repeal-and-replace plan the House produced was met with groans of disappointment from conservative policy wonks, and the Senate alternative fared little better. Now that the repeal-and-replace initiative has run aground, one would think that smaller reforms would be in the offing—but one would be wrong. The GOP is simply not up to this relatively narrow task.
In sum, the Republican party is generally not serious about entitlement reform. This explains why, despite the resurgence of the party’s political fortunes in the last 40 years, it has mostly left the system intact—the welfare reform of 1996 being a notable exception. When confronted with an opportunity for reform, the party more often undertakes initiatives that expand and entrench the current regime. This creates a vicious cycle: Halting and equivocal in its efforts, the party fails to educate the electorate on the need for reform, which encourages wavering legislators to hedge all the more.
What is needed is a GOP that is as committed to reforming entitlements as the Democrats are to expanding them. Democrats knew, in 2009-2010, that Obamacare was politically unpopular and might undermine their personal political aspirations. But many of them voted for it, anyway. Why? Because expanding federal benefits is embedded in the DNA of their party and is a central element of the modern progressive’s self-conception. Republicans have no such core conviction, and it shows.”