What if the Sky Doesn’t Fall?
With Michigan as the next battleground in the race for the Republican nomination, attention has turned to Mitt Romney’s strong opposition to the government bailout of GM and Chrysler. In November of 2008, with the domestic auto industry on the verge of collapse, Romney came out against a government bailout of the auto industry in a New York Times op-ed under the blunt headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Romney predicted that if the car companies were bailed out, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.” Now that the bailout is looking more and more like a success, Romney’s stance is looking more and more like a liability. Democrats have made clear that they see the auto bailout as a winning issue against Romney. Even Rick Santorum, who also opposed the auto bailout, has used the issue against Romney by questioning why Romney supported the bailout of Wall Street but did not support the bailout of Detroit.
Romney’s dilemma on the auto bailout is indicative of a recurring dilemma for Republicans. Much of our political debate is at heart a debate over the proper role of government. Progressives take a noble view of government, best exemplified by Barney Frank’s maxim, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” Government should be a vessel for collective problem solving and a democratically-accountable counterweight to powerful but undemocratic institutions like corporations. Conservatives take the opposite approach, viewing government as an alien force whose expansion is a threat to individual liberty. This view is best exemplified in Ronald Reagan’s “A Time For Choosing” speech, delivered in support of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign against Lyndon Johnson. Reagan delivered the sentiment more concisely as he exited political life, stating in his farewell address, “As government expands, liberty contracts.”
Elections are decided by those voters who do not take firm ideological stands but move back and forth from election to election based on their views of particular candidates and the current state of affairs. Often, Republicans can win these voters when conservatives’ ideological aversion to government aligns with the swing voters’ skepticism of government. Many voters associate government with long lines at the DMV, unfilled potholes, and bridges to nowhere. Americans’ lack of faith in government makes the country easy to persuade that a proposed government intervention is likely to be costly and ineffective. The problem for Republicans is that when government does act successfully, as with the auto bailout, a majority of the country will not continue to oppose such action solely on ideological grounds.
This dynamic helps explain why health care reform has been such a hotly contested issue over the past three years and will be one of the defining issues of the fall campaign. While the most visible criticism of the president’s health care law has employed ideologically charged “death of liberty” rhetoric, my guess is that a silent majority of those who oppose health care reform do so simply because they worry that their own health care will be adversely affected. Republicans have successfully, though dishonestly, convinced people that health care reform will mean bureaucrats meddling in every health care decision. Republicans were successful in exploiting these concerns during the 2010 midterms, and the Republican candidates have indicated that repealing the law will be a major issue in this fall’s campaign.
While health care reform has been a winning issue for Republicans in the short-term, the intensity of Republican opposition to the law can be explained in part by the recognition that once it is implemented the law will be judged on its terms and not through any ideological prism. Like social security and Medicare before it, if health care reform is viewed as a successful and beneficial program, ideological opposition to “big government” will not be enough to keep it from being popular and a winning issue for Democrats for generations.
Medicare provides perhaps the clearest example of Republicans being forced to accommodate the country’s lack of ideology. Before stumping for Goldwater, Reagan began his transition from actor to politician by delivering a recorded address opposing efforts to enact Medicare. In the address, Reagan predicted doom if Americans were willing to accept any form of socialized medicine:
From here it’s a short step to all the rest of socialism, to determining his pay and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him where he will go to work and what he will do.
By the time Reagan ran for president in 1980, Medicare was an established and popular law, and Reagan softened his position considerably, claiming that he had only opposed Medicare because he favored an alternate version of the law. Now, Medicare’s place in American life is so firmly ensconced that whenever Romney seeks to differentiate his own health care law from the president’s, he will in the same sentence condemn Obamacare for being a government takeover of health care and for cutting Medicare.
Romney is in a unique position on health care if he ends up as the Republican nominee. Romney’s health care law in Massachusetts, a model for the president’s law, is the signature achievement of his political career. Despite the criticism he takes from conservatives, Romney continues to defend his law as an effective piece of legislation. While his criticisms of Obamacare on grounds of federalism and constitutionality may satisfy enough Republicans to win Romney the nomination, in the general election the focus of the health care debate will simply be on whether or not Obamacare is going to work. Because of his own track record, Romney will be in a weak position to attack the substance of the law. And if Obamacare survives this year’s elections (and Supreme Court term), the entire Republican Party may soon find itself in the same place as Romney is now on the auto bailout: trying to justify its apocalyptic opposition to a successful program.