Reach Across the Aisle, Mr. President
For health-care reform to succeed, it requires buy-in and compromise from both parties.
All the emphasis seems to be on cutting. We will cut CPB, NPR, NEA.
Why aren’t we talking about growing and building and knocking down barriers? Why aren’t we talking about jobs and a boom and reforming regulation and taxes so people can build and invest?
Is cutting the absolute No. 1 priority right now? In a country that is, in Pope Francis' famous characterization of the modern world, “a field hospital after battle”? Is that what the Republican party wants to lead with? Why isn’t the priority unleashing, getting past limits, pushing toward dynamism and expansion?
All these old arguments — we have to have them now? Why? Because it’s important for a party to prove it doesn’t know what time it is?
How about a little prudence and patience? The priorities should be jobs, growth, social cohesion and an atmosphere, in Washington, of constructiveness. We don’t need any new culture wars — we’ve got enough, thanks! Is the worst thing that could happen in the world right now that a kid from New Jersey can come into Manhattan and see an off-Broadway show seeded with a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts? No, that’s not the worst thing that could happen!
The worst that could happen is that Congress is so exhausted as an institution, everyone’s ideologies so played out, that they’re all just playing a part, going through the motions, mindlessly replicating past battles in hope of some new reward.
Really, this week, that’s how it looks to me.
I am among those who think it absurd that Republicans on Capitol Hill decided to throw their initial attention on a hopelessly complex and convoluted health-care bill, and for procedural reasons so obscure they sound like Stockholm syndrome: “We must pay for the cuts or we blow up in reconciliation.” How can you expect people to follow you when they can’t even understand the marching orders, or why they should take the hill? And focusing on the replacement only highlighted party fissures.
The party leadership appears to have lost control of events. They view politics as the art of the possible, which it is, but they have a highly constricted sense of the possibilities. They put me in mind of the observation that a great leader has more in common with an artist than an economist. Economists drill deep in narrow fields, but the artist’s view is more expansive; he’s more able to grasp the big picture, and see how it is changing. The GOP leadership needs a greater artistic sense. Maybe they can put in for a grant from the NEA before it’s too late.
The leadership’s foes on the Right comport themselves like the original uncompromised men. They are, to their credit, almost alone in their willingness to declare their philosophical predicates and resultant policy commitments. But they are supporting players in the drama, their numbers are not growing, and there’s something exhausted about them, too.
There is a third group emerging that doesn’t have a name. They see themselves not as philosophers or ideologues but as people who live in reality. Some are tough-eyed: Americans will never give up what they’ve come to see as an entitlement. Some look at the country around them and see crises — in employment, drug abuse, family formation, education. This is no time to make things harder for people, even for a while. Some are merely practical: ObamaCare helped some of their constituents and jerked others around with lost coverage and jacked-up deductibles. A fix can’t just spread the misery around in a new way.
So far they’re called moderates. I asked one of these, an officeholder who cares about mental-health needs and the opioid epidemic, if he was experiencing himself as a populist. He said he has in the past been called a “positive populist.” which he liked: It suggested a realistic yet generous assessment of the actual lives of his constituents, joined with “a can-do spirit that we can help each other individually and with the government.” But “negative populism,” carries the connotation of darkness and resentment: “Someone took something from me.” So he sticks with the label Republican.
President Trump should have been the leader of this group but threw his lot with the congressional leadership. That may be changing. Wednesday night he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News that the bill is “very preliminary” and can be “negotiated” down the road. “We will take care of our people or I’m not signing it, OK?” Which is interesting because it contradicted Speaker Paul Ryan, who said March 6: “It’s not that this is open for negotiation.”
The president should confound expectations, pivot, and turn to the Democrats for a bipartisan deal.
Here is the tradition. If you are Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 and you want to create Social Security — an act that affects Americans very personally — you get the other party in on it. You need them co-owning it, invested in it. You want the American people saying, “Congress did this,” not “the Democrats did this,” because if they say the latter the reform will always divide. FDR got 81 Republicans to vote for it in the House, and 284 Democrats. The same with Medicare in 1965: Lyndon Johnson did all he could to get the GOP on board. A majority of House Republicans supported it.
Barack Obama, full of himself after his 2008 victory and surrounded by triumphalist House Democrats, ignored the teaching of history and passed ObamaCare without a single Republican vote. The Democrats would get all the credit. In time they got all the blame. Republicans had no incentive to bail them out.
But the health-care system, as Ohio Gov. John Kasich has observed, is crucial. The Democrats must be in on the process to achieve “true and lasting reform.”
No doubt Democrats would clean up the program along more liberal lines than Republicans, which would please their progressive base. But it would also please many in Mr. Trump’s base.
If it worked, Mr. Trump would crow he’s made the first big bipartisan deal in a generation — it’s a new day. It might help on future bipartisan efforts, such as infrastructure spending. And he can make it up to Republicans with conservative regulatory and tax reform.
It would be no scandal if the president threw in with Democrats and moderate Republicans at the expense of Republican leadership. He’s always been philosophically unreliable, his commitments ever-changeable. Everyone knows this. The American people hired him knowing it.
His supporters would forgive a failed attempt to replace ObamaCare along Republican lines. But they wouldn’t forgive a bad bill that succeeds.
In a telephone interview Mr. Kasich said, “Ronald Reagan made deals with Tip O'Neill on Social Security.” All the big reforms of the past — of welfare, of the Pentagon — were bipartisan efforts. Progress will come when both parties end “the civil war” over health care. Bipartisanship must come back if things are to work.
As he spoke I thought: a bipartisan deal on health care would also be a boost to the national morale. It wouldn’t be about constricting and cutting. It would feel expansive, constructive, even hopeful.