Brian Birdnow

This past week many conservatives, both in politics and the media, seemed to be approaching their wits end as to why some in the Republican establishment show little interest in pulling the plug on the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare”. Plaintive Op-Eds and commentary pieces in the prestige media pondered this question during the week and the conservative radio and television hosts openly speculated on a supposed GOP death wish on the issue. There are good reasons for the conservative anxiety on this question. First of all, the Obamacare rollout has been nothing short of a calamity. It has been much worse than anyone could have imagined, and these are the people who will have soon have charge of one-sixth of the nation’s economy and literal life-and-death decisions once this mistake has been fully implemented. Secondly, the public, which has always been ambivalent about the law (see the contradictory nature of the 2010 and 2012 elections) is now seeing things more clearly, and is rebelling as a result. Thirdly, the GOP has something tangible to employ in their battle with a slippery politician who campaigns ceaselessly, but hands the hot potato of his failures to others who willingly accept them. Still, there are significant elements in the Republican Party that counsel retreat and, yes, acceptance of Obamacare. Why?

The dynamics of GOP politics today actually reflect an internal battle stretching all the way back to 1938. In that fateful year the Republican Party split into two separate and contentious factions. The GOP was at a low historical point, having suffered electoral thrashings in 1932, ’34, and ’36. The U.S. Senate counted barely over twenty Republican members in 1937. National Republicans had to devise some type of strategy in order to remain relevant. The first group offering a plan consisted mostly of GOP officeholders from the Northeastern quadrant of the nation, along with a smaller contingent from the upper-Midwest. These Republicans, led by Thomas Dewey, the urbane New York governor, counseled the Party to basically accept the Democrats and the New Deal, but to emphasize Republican managerial competence and administrative efficiency. The Deweyite approach (sometimes called me-too Republicanism) could be summed up thusly: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and say you’ll do better than the other guys.

The other GOP faction, led by the Ohio Senator and presidential son Robert A. Taft decided to fight. Taft, elected to the Senate in the Republican rebound of 1938, declared famously, “The duty of the opposition Party is to oppose”, and he led a stout, if not entirely successful defense against an expansion of the New Deal and the statist agenda until his death in 1953. Every internal Republican battle in succeeding generations has been a variation on this same theme. The Goldwater-Rockefeller feud of the 1960s, the Reganites battling the “moderate” Nixon-Ford-Dole crowd of the 1970s, and the very public spat between the social and the economic conservatives of the early 1990s were dress rehearsals for the current discontents. The new paradigm pitting the Tea Party against the Republican establishment is largely a resumption of hostilities between factions that have often worked harder against each other than they have worked against the Democrats.

Today we generally consider the Republicans to be the “conservative” Party of free enterprise, limited government, and traditional values. In point of fact, however, some Republicans have always been comfortable with the welfare state. Some of the neoconservatives have always believed that a modest welfare state, properly constructed, serves as a needed bulwark against radicalism. Most conservatives do not share that sanguine view but many of the so-called “moderate” Republicans accept the idea of an overarching social safety net and emphasize, like their 1940s GOP ancestors, the importance of cost-control and administrative efficiency. They see no reason to fight the Obamacare repeal battle.

In addition to the Republican establishment accepting the welfare state, we have the continuing problem of the disconnect between Main Street USA, and the Washington bubble. The establishment Republicans are generally entrenched incumbents who, barring a political earthquake, will remain in their positions as long as they care to hold them. These folks are very comfortable with their status and they view themselves not as “representatives” of their districts and the people therein, but as “stewards” of the commonwealth who are obliged to exercise their judgment in matters political. They do not see themselves as representing their constitieutents, but as members of a superior political class. Most of them have no plans to return to live in their districts when they retire from politics. They maintain cordial relations with members of the other Party, and they dine, drink, and socialize with them regularly. It is understood that they will have to throw a verbal barb or two at the Democrats come election time, but this is all in the game, and nothing personal. These establishment Republicans greatly fear the tea partiers, assuming that they will be challenged and possibly beaten by these noisy upstarts. This will serve to ruin the good life that the establishment Republicans have spent a couple of decades building.

Finally, and most alarmingly, some Republicans are willing to allow this law to stand, not matter how damaging it is to the economy and to the nation for the mere fact they are happy to see health care taken off the table as an election year issue. The Democrats have used the high and rising costs of health care as a handy cudgel with which to bash the GOP every election cycle. Never mind that universal insurance and Democratic fiefdoms like the FDA are a large part of the problem. The establishment Republicans figure that Obamacare removes health care as an issue and allows the Party a pass for the transgression of having offered little on the issue themselves. This explains why we now see the spectacle of certain Republicans working to “reach across the aisle” to help save this monstrosity, even though they should claim no responsibility or ownership of Obama’s folly.

We will not know for months how this battle will turn out. We can see, once again, however that the Republicans never quite understand the nature of politics, the stakes involved, and the costs of defeat. Karl Rove and others have argued that the Party should back off and let Obamacare collapse under its own weight. Do they really think that a President who has accomplished nothing will give this Holy Grail up without a fight? We might end up with the institutionalizing of a terrible law, which costs trillions of dollars, does not improve American health care, and results in fewer citizens covered than before. The establishment Republicans can then congratulate themselves for avoiding another fight that they should have waged.


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.