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12/12/2012
In Defense of Incrementalism

Jonathan Chait writing in New York Magazine about Senator Marco Rubio’s “dodges” on the budget deficit and incrementalism as it relates to immigration reform:

On the budget, Rubio delivered the Republican weekly radio address, and his message was more of the old-timey religion: We must get the national debt under control. Tax increases will not solve our $16 trillion debt. Only economic growth and a reform of entitlement programs will help control the debt.

This is the classic Republican metaphysical dodge, which not only argues for keeping taxes as low as possible but refuses to acknowledge that revenue bears any relationship at all to deficits. Deficits equal spending! Two legs bad, Reagan good!

On immigration, meanwhile, Rubio is carefully positioning himself to oppose any potential deal. He is not coming out and immediately throwing his body in front of the legislative train. Rather, he pleads that we must not try to do everything at once and should instead try to reform immigration “step by step.” Of course, “step by step” is exactly the catchphrase Republicans used to oppose health-care reform. It’s a way of associating yourself with the broadly popular goal of reform while giving yourself cover to oppose any particular bill that has a chance to pass. You’re not against reform, you’re against this reform. It’s too much, too fast.

I am not enamored of Rubio as some on the right — not enough seasoning to be thinking seriously of a run for president. But Chait is misrepresenting Rubio’s position when he accuses him of refusing “to acknowledge that revenue bears any relationship at all to deficits.” Really? Raising the tax rate on the rich will bring in $80 billion a year. Last time I checked, that was more than a trillion bucks short of closing the deficit gap. It may be a good start, but unless Chait wants to jack up Middle Class tax rates as well, increased revenue is not going to come close to giving us significant deficit reduction. And it’s dishonest to accuse Rubio of refusing to say that revenue bears no relationship “at all” to deficits. That’s silly. Chait is chastizing Rubio for not agreeing with him — a sin among some on the left I suppose but hardly cause to charge the Florida senator with dishonesty.

Rubio is saying what most conservatives are saying; we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. The problem did not suddenly appear on Obama’s watch — the Bush administration did enough damage in 8 years — but the recession has worsened it. Chait appears not to acknowledge this fundamental issue and substitutes hyperbole for a reasoned analysis of Rubio’s remarks.

We are not going to bring the deficit down all at once. We can’t deal with the problem by only raising taxes, nor are we going to be able to grow our way out of the problem. Careful, prudent cuts in military and social spending — including trying to get a handle on entitlements whose unfunded liabilities promise catastrophe in the near future — along with a tax policy that eliminates much of the corporate welfare in the tax code and limits deductions will, over several years, do the least amount of harm to the economy while gently lowering the percentage of GDP spent by government.

In other words, the best path would appear to be incrementalism — what Chait dismisses as a dodge by Rubio, but which represents the most responsible, the most prudent means of governance. And the Affordable Care Act is a perfect example.

Incrementalism applied to the health insurance crisis would not only have improved health care and access to health insurance by most Americans, but have been politically palatable to at least some of Obama’s opposition. In 2009, the president faced a crisis that was not addressed by the Bush administration; 15-18 million Americans needed health insurance, wanted health insurance, but couldn’t afford it.* There were also a couple of million Americans with pre-existing conditions who insurance companies refused to cover, or whose coverage cost so much only the very rich could afford it.

The choice: either address the immediate need to get insurance for these at risk Americans or write a mostly unnecessary, ruinously complex, 2500 page monstrosity of lawmaking that, when implemented next year, is going to cause massive upheaval, confusion, and worry for tens of millions of Americans. Choosing the latter was imprudent and an insult to good governance.

There may be no more important civic virtue than prudence. Jefferson wisely said, “The same prudence which in private life would forbid our paying our own money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the dispensation of the public moneys.” Jefferson was well aware that imprudence in the use of public monies led to unintended consequences — the bane of good governance. When an exasperated Nancy Pelosi told a reporter in a response to a question of what exactly was in the ACA, “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it,” the speaker of the House was not making idle chatter. She was dead serious and to this day, we still haven’t grasped the enormity of what Congress has wrought in “reforming” health insurance and the health care industry.

What affect will mandated coverages have on people’s insurance policies and their cost? No one knows. How many companies will drop coverage for their employees? No one knows. What will dumping 15 million new Medicaid patients on the health care system mean? No one knows. How many doctors and hospitals will refuse to accept new Medicare and Medicaid patients because of the reduced reimbursement rates? No one knows.

These are just some of the obvious questions. The real problem is that we don’t even know all the questions to ask much less answer any of them. This is the definition of imprudence and raises the possibility that the Affordable Care Act, on balance, will be a detriment to our health care system rather than a plus.

Incrementally addressing the crisis that faced us in 2009 would have been the prudent thing to do. Covering as many Americans as possible by expanding Medicaid and subsidizing insurance for many more economically marginal citizens would have been sufficient to address the immediate needs of the people. We should have left the rest — the 108 new federal agencies, boards, panels, and commissions that are being created by this “comprehensive” legislation — for a later date when we’ve had time and experience to assess the impact on the health care system — and the federal budget — of covering millions of new patients.

The Democrats have a point that Republican opposition to almost all of the ACA meant there was, in a practical political way of speaking, no way to achieve bi-partisanship. But I submit that there were signs that the few moderates left in the party would have been glad to sign off on a less ambitious bill. Politics aside, however, this is a badly written piece of legislation that no self-respecting lawmaker should have voted for.

I reject the argument that incrementalism would have been “too hard” to accomplish and the easier course was to affect the changes all at once. Altering society in such a fundamental manner should be hard — must be hard. Force feeding such enormous changes without the slightest hint of what much of the real world impact on people’s lives and pocketbooks will be is irresponsible.

To a lesser extent. much the same could be said of the financial services reform bill — Dodd-Frank. Here too, there were problems that needed to be addressed — that could have been addressed — without resorting to creating a gargantuan new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Besides, the real problems regarding “Too big to Fail” and the transparency of the derivatives market were inadequately addressed.

Chait may wish to argue against incrementalism in the abstract. But he doesn’t. He dismisses the idea as just more politics from Rubio and the Republicans. I have a feeling in 2014 when the ACA has caused the kind of mass confusion and chaos that it is sure to do that many liberals like Chait might rethink the efficacy of incrementalism and it’s benefits to the concept of good governance.

*The idea that 30, 40, or 50 million Americans were uninsured — depending on how hysterical the partisan who talked about the need for the ACA was — was always a dishonest figure. There were millions of “young invincibles” who didn’t want insurance at the prices they could get it at.. There were perhaps 14 million Americans who, at any one time, are between jobs but would be virtually assured of getting health insurance from their jobs once they were employed again. That makes the real uninsured figure below 20 million and perhaps fewer than 15 million.

By: Rick Moran at 10:58 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (0)

6/9/2011
ObamaCare Faces Tough Judicial Crowd

I wrote about that federal appeals court hearing in Atlanta yesterday about Obamacare for FrontPage.com.

A sample:

The 11th circuit is considered to be one of the most conservative appeals courts in the nation. Greg Bluestein writing for RealClearPolitics.com says of the judges, “None of the three are considered either stalwart conservatives or unfailing liberals.” Chief Judge Joel Dubina was appointed by George W. Bush, while Judges Stanley Marcus and Frank Hull were tapped by Bill Clinton, although Hull was originally appointed by Ronald Reagan to the District Court in Florida.

Court watchers say that both sides had reason for hope. During three hours of questions, the judges sharply questioned acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal K. Katyal about the power of Congress to compel individuals to purchase any product, much less health insurance. “If we uphold this, are there any limits [on government power]?” asked Judge Dubina. Judge Marcus said he couldn’t find a case in the law where the courts upheld “telling a private person they are compelled to purchase a product in the open market…. Is there anything that suggests Congress can do this?”

While the judges appeared skeptical about whether the government could force individuals to purchase a private product, they also didn’t seem to think much of the plaintiff’s argument that what Congress was really doing was regulating “economic inactivity.” Walter Delligner, acting solicitor general under Bill Clinton, detected some doubt in the judge’s questions of former Bush administration Solicitor General Paul Clement who is representing the plaintiffs.”The inactivity point is losing salience,” Dellinger said.

But it is the constitutionality of the mandate that most concerns the government, because without it, Obamacare collapses. There would be no way to fund the program. As Clement observed, “If you take out the hub, the spokes will fall.”

The Washington Examiner’s Randy Barnett points out the mandate is clearly the nub of the matter — both legally and psychologically. If the mandate passes muster with the courts,”[t]he next time Congress decides to impose an economic mandate, the courts will defer to Congress’ own assessment of whether another economic mandate is ‘essential.’”

In researching this piece yesterday, I came across about a half dozen articles from legal experts who think that even if the plaintiffs prevail in appeals court that SCOTUS will almost certainly uphold its constitutionality. Megan McCardle thinks there is barely a 25% chance the Supremes will give the ax to Obamacare.

Tradition more than ideology will determine the Supreme Court decision. It is extremely rare that the high court challenges congress in their interpretation of the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause. Congress has said by passing Obamacare that they have a right to regulate the insurance industry any way they choose — including the individual mandate — and buttress their argument by pointing to  Article I and the Necessary and Proper Clause as giving them the power to come up with the best means to achieve their legislative goal.

This will be good enough for the 4 liberals and almost certainly Anthony Kennedy. At least that’s how court watchers have handicapped the outcome. By the time the case reaches them, Obamacare will be so entrenched with billions in funding spent, boards and commissions formed, insurance exchanges created, and more, that striking it down in total will be impossible. Even in the unlikely event the mandate is declared unconstitutional, the rest of the law will remain.

Make no mistake. A Supreme Court imprimatur on the mandate will mean that for all practical purposes, there will be no limits on what can be construed as “economic activity” under the Commerce Clause. Even “inactivity” will be judged as falling under that rubric.

And don’t think for a minute that there aren’t people who will seek to use this near unlimited power to attempt to alter our behavior. Government will be able to compel us to purchase anything they deem “necessary and proper” to the implementation of health care laws and probably other schemes as well.

We will rue the day.

By: Rick Moran at 11:43 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (0)

5/25/2011
NOW WHAT?

So, the Democrats played “The GOP wants you to die” card with seniors in NY-26 and, as expected, it worked like a charm. A district that was a +6 in favor of Republicans fell to a Democrat by a close, but still solid plurality 47-43.

For those Republicans believing that if only Tea Party candidate Jack Davis had stayed off the ballot they could have won, Nate Silver busts that balloon:

Suppose that Mr. Davis and Mr. Murphy were not running, and that this were a true two-way race between Ms. Hochul and Ms. Corwin. If Ms. Corwin had won all of Mr. Davis’s vote (and Ms. Hochul won all of Mr. Murphy’s vote), she would have won 51-49.

That would still qualify as a bad night for the Republicans, however. Based on the way that the district votes in presidential elections, it is 6 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole. That means, roughly speaking, that in a neutral political environment with average candidates, Ms. Corwin would have won 56 percent of the vote and Ms. Hochul 44 percent — a 12-point victory. A 2-point win instead, therefore, would have spoken to a relatively poor political environment for the Republicans.

Nor is it likely that Ms. Corwin would in fact have won all of Mr. Davis’s votes. He ran in the district as a Democrat in 2006, and polls suggested that his voters leaned Republican by roughly a 2-1 margin, but not more than that. If you had split his vote 2-1 in favor of Ms. Corwin, the results would have been Ms. Hochul 51 percent, and Ms. Corwin 48 percent.

A much larger contributing factor was the minuscule turnout of 25%. If it had been a normal mid-term turnout of 35%, Corwin probably wins.

But there’s no use playing the “what if” game. The Democrats rolled into the district and demagogued the Medicare issue, spending a tidy sum on ads accusing Republicans of wanting to cut off Gramma and Grandpa’s Medicare. Fine - that’s politics. They saw an opening and they went for the jugular.

But, as George Custer said to his brother Tom as half the Indians on the prairie were charging up Last Stand Hill at the Little Big Horn, “Now what?”

The Democrats have a victory and have portrayed themselves successfully as the defenders of old folks, children, and 3-legged dogs. But garnering political victory by hammering your opponent over entitlement reform doesn’t make the problem go away. And since Democrats have been less than forthcoming - a lot less - in announcing their own plan to “save” Medicare, perhaps it’s time to let us all in on the secret and tell us their brilliant plan.

It’s not just Medicare, of course. One wonders if the Democrats are praying for some kind of miracle that will make the trillion dollar plus deficits magically disappear with no voters experiencing any pain, bear any additional cost for any service they get from government, or get mad at any politician for trying to bring fiscal sanity back to the country. We are borrowing 40% of what we spend. How long can we sustain that without buckling and collapsing in a heap?

I don’t give a sh*t whose fault it is, which party is to blame, whether George Bush was a poopey head, or Obama is a charlatan with a golden voice. If you want to have those arguments, you will find yourselves screaming at each other as our economic house collapses around you. Even then I doubt whether you’d have the smarts - or the courage - to grow up and act like we have a crisis on our hands.

So congratulations, Democrats on your great victory in NY-26. And I anxiously await your plan to fix the entitlement mess where no one will experience any pain, nothing will be cut, only millionaires will pay more taxes, and seniors will live forever.

Did I mention what happened to Custer at Little Big Horn?

By: Rick Moran at 4:32 pm | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (0)

12/13/2010
Curtains for Obamacare? Not Hardly

The ruling by Judge Henry E. Hudson that parts of Obamacare are unconstitutional has set off a wave of euphoria among opponents of the law who believe that the decision will make it impossible to implement the bulk of reforms contained in the bill.

At issue was the coercive requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance. It appears to me that the judge zeroed in on what the individual mandate truly represented:

“Despite the laudable intentions of Congress in enacting a comprehensive and transformative health care regime, the legislative process must still operate within constitutional bounds,” wrote Hudson, a George W. Bush-appointee.

“Because an individual’s personal decision to purchase — or decline to purchase — health insurance from a private provider is beyond the historical reach of the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause does not provide a safe sanctuary” for health care, Hudson wrote.

Cuccinelli argued that the Affordable Care Act conflicts with the Virginia Health Care Freedom Act, which was passed by the state in anticipation of the passage of the federal law. Virginia’s law said that no individual mandate could be required. Hudson ruled that the law raised constitutional questions on Congress’ power to penalize people for refusing to participate in interstate commerce.

And that’s the bottom line; how, in a free society that historically values the rights and liberties of the individual, can government force people against their will to purchase anything? (The requirement for liability insurance for drivers is an entirely different matter because you can opt out of the requirement by refusing to drive. The only way to opt out of Obamacare is by refusing to breathe.)

While there is no “severability” between health care reform and the mandate, there are many other parts of the bill that are independent of the mandate’s reach and will probably become law in 2014. The issues dealing with Medicare will almost certainly stay, as will the formation of most of the boards and commissions that will oversea the new regulatory regime of the health care industry. Individual states will still be able to open their Medicaid programs to the uninsured, although how they are going to pay for it is unknown. It’s even a possibility that Congress will go ahead and offer subsidies to people who wish to purchase health insurance but can’t afford it.

It’s hard to summarize what stays and what goes in a 3,000 page bill that few have read and even fewer understand, but I suspect this is a temporary set back for insurance reformers. Where there’s a will in Congress, there is usually a way and while the GOP is taking over the reins of power in January, the insurance crisis isn’t going away and will probably be exacerbated by this ruling. Once their constituents start screaming about double digit rate increases, a new way will be found to regulate the insurance industry in order to bring costs down.

Curious that the White House put out this fact sheet over the weekend in anticipation of this ruling and made this bizarre claim:

However, unless every American is required to have insurance, it would be cost prohibitive to cover people with preexisting conditions. Here’s why: If insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to anyone who applies for insurance – especially those who have health problems and are potentially more expensive to cover – then there is nothing stopping someone from waiting until they’re sick or injured to apply for coverage since insurance companies can’t say no. That would lead to double digit premiums increases – up to 20% – for everyone with insurance, and would significantly increase the cost of health care. We don’t let people wait until after they’ve been in a car accident to apply for auto insurance and get reimbursed, and we don’t want to do that with healthcare. If we’re going to outlaw discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, the only way to keep people from gaming the system and raising costs on everyone else is to ensure that everyone takes responsibility for their own health insurance. If we don’t, then we will go back to the days of allowing insurance companies to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

It was a given that a substantial percentage of the uninsured would “game the system” under Obamacare because the penalty for not purchasing insurance was far less than the yearly cost of premiums - even with the subsidies Congress was dangling in front of citizens. The “Young Invincibles” who would make up the bulk of uninsured who might be coerced into buying policies aren’t stupid and can probably add and subtract fairly well. Why pay thousands per year for a health policy when the penalty for not doing so would have been, on average, $325?

Perhaps the bottom line questions are, how coercive should government be? What’s the tipping point where someone draws the line and says, “This far no farther?” And where do the rights of the individual end and the “greater good” begin? It’s not really a question of whether government is able to do it; it’s a matter of whether government should do it.

There are alternatives to the mandate - including subsidies - as well as the Medicaid option for the poor that would take care of millions of Americans who want health insurance but can’t afford it. Other reforms involving a mix of the free market and government regulation would almost certainly slow the cost of health care and the rise in premiums.

Selling Obamacare as the only alternative to doing nothing was always more a political truth than any accurate reflection of reality. Now it’s back to the drawing board for at least some of the reforms contained in the bill.

By: Rick Moran at 12:49 pm | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (1)

9/8/2010
FANTASIES AND OBAMANOMICS

My latest is up at FrontPage.com and in it, I compare the “Son of Stimulus” to Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, sequels, and knock offs.

A sample:

The president barnstormed the country this summer touting rising jobs numbers despite the underlying weakness of the labor market that produced few private sector jobs, and employment numbers that included hundreds of thousands of temporary census workers. Unlike moviegoers, however, American workers are unable to lose their troubles in Obama’s fantasies about how much better things are getting.

In recent years, summer for Hollywood has also meant the regurgitation of hit movies from the past in the form of the sequel (many are sequels to sequels). And when you run out of sequels, you can always steal material from comic books or old TV shows. Hence, the biggest grossing movies this summer turned out to be the third incarnation of Toy Story, a sequel to a comic book knock off (Iron Man 2), the umpteenth Shrek sequel, and the third go-around for the teenage vampire love story The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

Add the TV retread The A-Team, the updating of the Ralph Macchio franchise The Karate Kid, and the truly awful Sex in the City 2 and you begin to get the idea that there hasn’t been a lot of creativity in Hollywood since Howard Hughes found a way around the censors to show as much of Jane Russell in The Outlaw as could be squeezed out of her ill-fitting bodice.

By: Rick Moran at 10:41 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (0)

8/6/2010
MEDICARE TRUSTEES: ‘TRUST US. MEDICARE IS HEALTHY’

I like optimists. Their sunny dispositions and can-do attitude work like a tonic on old curmudgeons like me who always seem to find that the glass is half empty.

Ordinarily, we want optimists in government. Not only does it make the behemoth more pleasant to deal with but optimistic people also tend to be more competent than sourpusses.

That said, there is a huge difference between optimism and bat guano crazy, pie in the sky fantasy. Case in point - the Medicare and Social Security Trustees who issued a report on the fiscal health of those funds that was so fantastically optimistic, one wonders if they made their observations from the vantage point of an alternate universe.

An eye-opening editorial from Investors Business Daily:

ObamaCare extends Medicare’s trust fund by 12 years to 2029, administration officials said Thursday in the annual report on Social Security and Medicare, ignoring that the extra savings and taxes are already earmarked for the new health law’s major expansion of insurance coverage.Those savings assume much slower growth in health care costs to an extent that Medicare’s chief actuary says may be unlikely. Meanwhile, Social Security’s cash-flow woes worsened and its disability trust fund will run dry by 2018.

“The report seems rosier, but really what has happened is a shift of resources away from Medicare toward Medicaid and the new health care subsidies,” said Bob Bixby, executive director of the fiscal watchdog Concord Coalition.

Still, the report does hold out the longer-term hope that ObamaCare might slow runaway health spending - if all of its provisions are enacted and work exactly as planned.

That is an assumption which carries “great uncertainty,” cautioned chief Medicare actuary Richard Foster in an accompanying report.

Foster characterized the report as “an illustration of the very favorable financial outcomes” possible if higher medical productivity gains are achieved in the long run.

“Actual future costs for Medicare are likely to exceed those shown by the current-law projections,” he wrote.

The trustees - all Obama administration officials - also noted that the cost projections factored in a 30% cut in fees paid to Medicare physicians, something the administration intends to avert.

So lets get this straight. This rosey report is based on the idea that health care costs will rise slower than in the past - despite the fact this has never happened, budget cuts no one intends to make, and the perfect implementation of the extraordinarily flawed and imprudent Obamacare.

Got ya.

Liberals are already crowing about these overcooked, overripe numbers. Former WaPo blogger Dan Froomkin, writing at HuffPo, can hardly contain his glee:

The new health care law has significantly improved the prognosis for Medicare, extending the life of its trust fund by 12 years until 2029, and thereby delaying any need for dramatic changes in benefits or revenues, according to a new report.

The annual check-up from government actuaries overseeing the nation’s two central safety-net programs also found that Social Security continues to be much less of a problem than Medicare, and will remain in strong financial shape at least through 2037.

As I wrote above, I like optimists. Froomkin would have been great as a passenger on the Titanic. (”Just a scratch, folks. All is well.”) Note also that Dan fails to include the titanic caveats in the report, like Obamacare working to perfection and non-existent, never to be seen payment cuts to doctors becoming a reality.

Well, not on this planet anyway.

I think these Medicare trustees are in the wrong business. They should be weather forecasters. Never a cloudy day will be predicted if they take over the Weather Channel.

This blog post originally appeared on the American Thinker.

By: Rick Moran at 7:07 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (0)

4/2/2010
DON’T SLANDER STATES’ RIGHTS

This article originally appears at Frum Forum.

In an excellent article in The New Republic, Sean Wilentz takes to task those who wish to resurrect the pernicious doctrine of “nullification” to thumb their nose at the federal government on health care reform.  Unfortunately, Wilentz conflates nullification with the idea of “states’ rights” in general:

Although not currently concerned with racial supremacy, the consequence of their doctrine would uphold an interpretation of the constitutional division of powers that would permit the majority of any state to reinstate racial segregation and inequality up to the point of enslavement, if it so chose.

Is opposition to health care reform at the state level leading to a resurrection of slavery? Really?

That much has been done in the last 100 years to undermine the 10th Amendment is not debatable. That the cause for this was considered just is equally true.

At the same time, in our zeal to improve the lives of American citizens, we have allowed the very concept of federalism to atrophy. Even debating the idea that the 10th Amendment can be redefined so that it can be made relevant in a 21st century industrialized democracy is seen as an exercise in futility.

Clearly, there are many functions of government that do not lend themselves to the concept of federalism. We can’t have 50 different air quality or water quality standards. Nor does the prospect of 50 OSHA’s or MSHA’s, or FDA’s, or any number of federal agencies responsible for our health and safety make any sense.

But is it possible to take a hard look at these agencies and discover a few responsibilities they currently enjoy that might be better performed by states? If it can be done without gutting them, why not try? Shouldn’t states have a lot more to say about how federal lands are used within their boundaries? Those lands are enormously valuable in many respects and yet the states have little say in the leasing and development schemes of the federal government. And it is long past time we take a very hard look at the Department of Education (with a $63 billion budget) and find a way to turn that department into an adjunct to local efforts at teaching our children rather than as a repository for bureaucrats to carve out their petty empires. With educational achievement at historic lows, it is evident that at least some of that money might be better given to states and local school districts to use as they see fit.

The concept of federalism today is a far cry from what the Founders envisioned. But that’s how it should be, and it’s perfectly in keeping with what those men imagined for the future. They may have written the Constitution for a small coastal republic of 7 million citizens, but were prescient enough to give their creation the revolutionary ability to change with a changing country.

Now that we are a continental nation of 300 million – as diverse and vibrant a society that has ever existed -it is time to re-examine and reinvigorate the founding notion that power shared and dispersed among many is the bulwark against which no force can threaten our liberties. Resurrecting the ghosts of the past to discredit this notion should be met with the contempt it deserves.

By: Rick Moran at 9:11 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (3)

3/30/2010
Some thoughts on change, large and small

This post originally appears at The Moderate Voice

There is nothing new about one’s political opponent’s trying to define your philosophy. This is a part of politics as old as the republic, and the more stinking and fearsome you can define how your enemy thinks, the more hay you will make with the electorate.

It worked so well for movement conservatives that they have chased the designation “liberal” from public discourse, perhaps for all time, by demonizing, exaggerating, and ultimately condemning those who identified themselves thusly as less than patriotic, less than American.

And previous to that, liberals worked wonders with the word “conservative” as they branded anyone of that philosophical bent a frothing at the mouth anti-Communist, a danger to American liberties, an ignorant, unlearned rube distrustful of intellectuals, and a mossback who looked with suspicion on international entanglements.

So goes the unending war between the two great philosophies - the yin and yang of the soul of America, forever condemned to be at odds while the country would find it impossible to do without both.

The complementary forces at work that make both liberals and conservatives necessary for a healthy society far exceed the puny efforts to rip asunder the the soul of America where these philosophies reside. While we have seen in recent decades an excessive partisanship that seeks dominance and control over the mechanism of government, what has been happening beneath the surface hasn’t changed; the slow, grinding forces of history that shape the destiny of America in ways we can only understand when we remove ourselves from the present political skirmishes and see the contours revealed by looking over our shoulder at what we have become.

American history is not a straight line proposition. It is tempting for narrative historians to paint it that way, but by doing so, much is missed in the translation. And the reason that is basically true is because of how America changes over the years, and the nature of change itself.

Generally speaking, America is a nation created to embrace change. Our Constitution has codified this notion by including the radical idea that future circumstances may require that the founding document be amended. But at the same time - and this is the key - the founders made it damn near impossible to alter their masterpiece. The Constitutional amendment must be passed by a 2/3 vote Congress and then approved by 3/4 of the states. A tall order that, as evidenced by the fact that, excluding the Bill of Rights, we have altered the text of our founding document only 17 times in 221 years.

Clearly, the founders wanted a little built in prudence to govern the engine of change. There is nothing wrong with that, as any conservative could tell you. Prudence is perhaps the most important civic virtue to which a society and by extension, government can aspire. It allows for change without overturning society in a helter skelter effort to address the issue of the day, putting a break on passion and forcing the citizenry to deal with what needs to be done in a rational manner. Change should be managed and well considered with a sharp eye directed toward consequences both seen and perhaps unseen.

This has usually been the case in America. And when it hasn’t been so, the worst consequences have usually been outweighed by the gains we have made by marching into the future with little or no idea of where we were going. Only the fact that we were moving ahead seemed to matter.

You can pick your own examples from history but I like the radical change found in Jacksonian democracy overturning the established order and giving ordinary people power they were previously denied. The “Age of the Common Man” had begun and since then, politicians have pandered to that notion of the “ordinary American,” sometimes masking schemes that accomplished exactly the opposite by claiming solidarity with regular folk.

Thinking of what has been done by government in the name of the “Middle Class” is to contemplate the unforeseen consequences that Old Hickory unleashed. And yet, we certainly wouldn’t trade what we have with what the Jacksonians defeated; the idea that there was a landed aristocracy who should rule by birthright.

In a similar fashion, we accept the consequences of destroying slavery even with the monumentally awful consequences of war, bitterness, divisiveness, and the system of Jim Crow that replaced bondage because slavery was such a fundamental evil that the unforeseen consequences didn’t matter. It could be said that in the case of getting rid of involuntary servitude and flushing it forever from the Constitution, that we could well say to hell with prudence, the actions we’re taking are long past due.

There are other examples of great change leading to unforeseen and deleterious consequences. Think of the Great Depression and the revolution in government begun by FDR. Until that time, the only contact people had with Washington was basically through the post office, or the draft. FDR changed that forever by initiating a massive government intervention in the economy in order to “save capitalism” while ordinary people were helped via government assistance with jobs, food, and housing. By today’s standards, these changes were modest indeed. But whether you are a liberal or conservative, you have to agree that there were unintended consequences to these changes and that not all of them were good.

Think of World War II and the rise of the national security state, the baby boom, the creation of a consumer driven economy - all changes that have good and bad consequences for our society, most of them unforeseen. War seems to accelerate change whether we want it or not which is a consequence in and of itself. How different we would be if we had not been drawn into the conflict? Alternate history parlor games notwithstanding, it would be impossible to say.

This brings us to the present and our president’s charge that opponents of his health insurance reform plan failed to embrace it because of their fear of change. There is something to that idea, although I would strenuously argue that for many on the right, it was not a question of being fearful of change per se, only the imprudent, unforeseen, uncontemplated changes inherent in a 3000 page bill few had read, fewer still understood, and no one could imagine the worst of what this effort at comprehensive reform of 1/6 the economy would mean.

Russel Kirk may be talking about conservative philosophy here, but I think he speaks to prudent people everywhere:

Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.

It’s almost as if the old professor had health insurance reform in mind when he wrote those words more than 50 years ago. The difference here between “real conservatives” (Kirk) and “true conservatives” (Palin) is probably lost on the partisans from both sides. But there is a universality to what Kirk is saying that strays beyond ideology and speaks to something far more important; our innate common sense.

President Obama has made a passionate case for health insurance reform. Indeed, many on the left have declared America deficient because we refuse to follow the lead of our European betters and embrace government run health care. I don’t doubt for a minute their sincerity in believing what the Democrats hath wrought on health care reform isn’t good and necessary, although I would gently point out that our founders went about writing a Constitution that put as much distance as possible between us and their ancestors across the sea.

I do question their common sense and prudence in advancing legislation that so many don’t want, and so many have pointed out potential disastrous consequences. Given that all change brings with it these unforeseen happenstances, and that the bigger the change, the more potential for catastrophe, one can only conclude that this kind of massive reform of the entire health care system was unnecessary and imprudent.

Change for the sake of change is mindless idiocy. Change because we are unique, and altering our society to conform to someone else’s idea of what is proper is nonsensical. There must be purpose, logic, and reason to change or you allow passion to govern. And if that be the case, you not only lack prudence, but judgment as well.

The American people would have embraced a far less ambitious, less costly, more tailored reform effort. We could have insured the uninsured and made insurance available to those denied it because of a pre-existing condition. We could have placed the hand of regulation less heavily on insurance companies while forcing them to conform to better standards, with more consumer protection. We could have done all of this and then carefully weighed the consequences before proceeding further.

But we didn’t. And the unforeseen consequences of this imprudent alteration in our health care system may far outweigh any good done in the passing of it.

By: Rick Moran at 9:41 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (3)

3/26/2010
Frum’s Fall a Telling Blow to Pragmatism on the Right

This post originally appears on The Moderate Voice

Would the last intellectual conservative to leave Washington please turn out the lights?

The fall of AEI senior Fellow David Frum is not only a loss for intellectual conservatism, but a warning to conservative apostates everywhere that tolerance for opposing viewpoints on the right in the Age of Obama will not be a paying proposition. The previous firing of Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan senior policy analyst from the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing an anti-Bush book should have been seen at the time as a shot across the bow by the moneybags who largely fund the conservative movement and who are apparently so insecure in their own beliefs that they are terrified of the independent mind, of thoughts and ideas that don’t match up with their own.

Most of the internet right is joyful today at the humbling of Frum who has stood four square against the emotionalism and excessive partisanship demonstrated by those who consider themselves true conservatives. He has lambasted the cotton candy conservatism of Beck, Limbaugh, and other pop righties whose exaggerated, over the top rhetoric may bring in ratings but ultimately damages the cause they purport to espouse.

Does this mean Frum was always right? Nobody is always right, which is one of the main points of intellectual conservatism. A healthy conservatism would have intelligently debated Frum’s frequent critiques of the right and the GOP. Rather than questioning his motives, his ambition, or his commitment to the right, a dynamic colloquy could have ensued that would have benefited all.

Alas, such was not - could not - be the case. Instead, Frum’s numerous critics accused him of naked ambition, trying to curry favor with the left and the press in order to further his career. He was dismissed as a non-conservative or a RINO because he didn’t believe government was the enemy. He was charged with practicing punditry under false pretenses, of not really believing what he was talking and writing about.

I can tell you from experience that it is that last criticism that hurts the most and is the quickest to bring anger to the forefront of one’s emotions. Frum knew that his critiques would diminish him in the eyes of the very people who were paying his salary. Perhaps some of his critics should try doing that in their own job someday. The squeaky wheel often does not get the grease, but rather, is replaced - and quite easily as is the case with Frum.

Indeed, Frum speculates to Politco’s Mike Allen that it was his Waterloo article that proved the last straw for some of AEI’s biggest contributors:

David Frum told us last night that he believes his axing from his $100,000-a-year “resident scholar” gig at the conservative American Enterprise Institute was related to DONOR PRESSURE following his viral blog post arguing Republicans had suffered a devastating, generational “Waterloo” in their loss to President Obama on health reform. “There’s a lot about the story I don’t really understand,” Frum said from his iPhone. “But the core of the story is the kind of economic pressure that intellectual conservatives are under. AEI represents the best of the conservative world. [AEI President] Arthur Brooks is a brilliant man, and his books are fantastic. But the elite isn’t leading anymore. It’s trapped. Partly because of the desperate economic situation in the country, what were once the leading institutions of conservatism are constrained. I think Arthur took no pleasure in this. I think he was embarrassed. I think he would have avoided it if he possibly could, but he couldn’t.”

That “economic pressure” was in the form of a donor revolt, made even more remarkable, Bruce Bartlett, because of the cone of silence that dropped over AEI health policy wonks who were instructed not to talk to the press because they agreed with some of the things Obama was trying to do:

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI “scholars” on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already.

Sadly, there is no place for David and me to go. The donor community is only interested in financing organizations that parrot the party line, such as the one recently established by McCain economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin.

I can see the gloat on the faces of Frum’s critics as they read that “the elite isn’t leading anymore.” This has been the biggest bone of contention between the few conservative critics on the right who rail against the mindless, ideologically driven opposition of many movement conservatives to anything they don’t agree with vs. the reasoned and logical, more pragmatic opposition that is more open minded, more accepting of the notion that compromise is necessary for government to work.

In fact, this was the thesis of Frum’s Waterloo article; that by choosing not to engage the Democrats in crafting Obamacare, the GOP shot itself in the foot by not only appearing weak, but eventually being unable to block the monstrosity of Obamacare. In achieving this dubious honor, the governing elites were driven like a herd of cattle, being prodded on by talk radio and Fox News buffoons who lead a movement and where any deviation from accepted wisdom was met with a withering blast of mockery and threats of excommunication.

Why has conservatism turned into such an echo chamber? Why do most on the right only read and digest that with which they agree and not open their minds, test their basic assumptions against opposing views? What is it that frightens them so that they see those who criticize the rank emotionalism of a Beck or Limbaugh as “the enemy” rather than the normal give and take among people who disagree?

I searched for an answer to these and other questions in my 5 part series “Intellectual Conservatism Isn’t Dead.” And while I never came right out and said it, I think what I was driving at was that the rejection of intellectuals or “the elites” is symptomatic of a lack of confidence in what conservatives should stand for. Issues aren’t the problem. There is broad agreement on which issues are important and what position conservatives should hold.

Rather, it is a lack of confidence in what conservatism as a philosophy should be all about. Witness the health care debate and the eagerness with which many conservatives are embracing the rush to federal court to have Obamacare declared unconstitutional. Does anyone see the titanic irony in, on the one hand, declaring fierce opposition to “activist judges” while on the other hand scurrying off to court in order to plead with a judge to take an activist stance against legislation with which the right disagrees?

This is the kind of emotional partisanship that is killing conservatism, driving the right off a cliff. And it comes from closing one’s mind to alternative viewpoints; to understand where the other side is coming from (both the left, and opponents on the right) while being terrified that one might be harboring views that are not in lock step with the majority. It is fear that is driving this kind of excessively partisan, morbidly ideological behavior on the right - fear that being cast outside of the groupthink that has become modern conservatism will leave the apostate without a political ship on which to sail.

Reading and listening to Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, and other pop conservatives without investigating alternative viewpoints, without challenging your own beliefs from time to time, marks one as a philistine. It is the antithesis of conservatism to close one’s mind and reject alternative viewpoints based not on their relevancy or reason but rather on the source of the criticism.

It is easy to dismiss conservatives like Frum by chalking up their opposition to the groupthink by wittily offering that they say those things so that they can get invited to liberal cocktail parties, or advance their careers in the leftist MSM. This kind of personal criticism is easier than having to respond directly to the charges that modern movement conservatism has lost touch with reality, and has become irresponsible, loutish, anti-science, and anti-intellectual. Greedy, selfish, cynical, and most of all, intellectually rigid, what is being identified as modern conservatism has no coherence, no basis in logic, and proudly represents itself as the party of little or no government at all.

And people like Frum, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, Bruce Bartlett, and others like them who are in bad odor on the right for being “traitors” will go on being ignored and marginalized because actually dealing with their criticisms by debating them on the merits or demerits of their opinions opens a chasm beneath the feet of most movement conservatives. Even the tiniest of hints that not all they believe may be true is enough to throw the fear of God - or Rush - into them and send them scurrying back into the safety and warmth of blissful ignorance found on talk radio and conservative internet salons.

The apostates are not always right. On health care, it is naive to believe the Democrats were prepared to work with the GOP on anything that would have stopped short of the kind of comprehensive remaking of our health care that eventually passed. This, the GOP could not countenance under any circumstances and remain a viable political party. In that respect, the main thesis of Frum’s Waterloo article is hopelessly wrong. But should that be cause to force him out?

Not if conservatism was a healthy, dynamic, politically relevant entity. If that were the case, the conservative moneybags would have gotten their money’s worth because conservatism would have been better for the subsequent debate. Instead, lockstep lunacy reins and Frum - and the rest of intellectual conservatism - finds itself on the outs.

By: Rick Moran at 10:37 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (2)

3/25/2010
OBAMACARE: REPEAL, REPLACE, RINSE, REPEAT

My latest column is up at Pajamas Media and in it, I go through the reasons why Obamacare will probably not be repealed, nor declared unconstitutional in its entirety:

A sample:

Considering the fact that Democrats have deluded themselves into believing that ObamaCare is the nirvana all Americans have been pining for, it would be impolite not to join them in their self-deception.

This, the GOP has apparently taken to heart with talk of repealing ObamaCare. While an excellent idea with much merit, the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing this mirage are insurmountable. Consider:

1. In order to make repeal a reality, the GOP would have to win back both houses of Congress with considerable room to spare, capturing 2/3 of the seats in each chamber. This is because unless Barack Obama has a “road to Damascus” moment about liberty, the Constitution, the free market, and first principles, it is more than likely he will veto said repeal legislation just as quickly as they can load the teleprompter with his remarks on how he is saving “the children.”

2. An alternative to repeal, one that would have the same effect, would be to defund the measure by repealing parts of the bill. This path has the virtue of not needing a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, because the tax credits and Medicaid expansion could be dealt with through the reconciliation process. Before getting too excited, you might want to think of the effect of cutting off subsidies to millions of poor people who have insurance only because the government pays for it. Making yourself an easy target for liberal demonizing is not a sound political strategy.

3. I hate bringing up history at a time like this, but no entitlement program once enacted has ever been repealed. “There’s a first time for everything” might be a tempting battle cry to employ, until you realize that the reason history is not on our side is because constituencies rapidly grow up around entitlements, making them as politically indestructible as the pyramids. The yowls of pain from beneficiaries of any entitlement that is under threat of major overhaul or repeal resonate with that significant portion of the electorate who gets all weepy at the thought of any American suffering for any reason. It is a major source of our strength as a nation - and it might be the death of us in the end.

Apropos my comment earlier in the week about the GOP eventually embracing national health insurance (which I shamelessly repeated in this piece), Senator Chuck Grassley has already made noises about fixing Obamacare rather than repealing it. And I think “repeal and replace” a far more intelligent political strategy than simple “repeal.”

But when you can’t move the mountain, isn’t it smarter to figure out ways to deal with it where it is? I would love to see Obamacare repealed but its never happened before and there is absolutely nothing about this situation that would make me think differently. Unless there is a total, unmitigated financial disaster before November, or unemployment skies, or inflation starts to really bite, the GOP will not win back control of the Senate, and taking over the House is also a problematic question.

Thus, with Obama firmly ensconced in the presidency until at least 2012, it seems a fanciful notion to entertain thoughts of repeal until at least 2013 — and that’s assuming Obama loses and the GOP picks up enough senate seats to defeat any filibuster attempt.

It’s not impossible - just not very likely. And saying so doesn’t make me a “defeatist.” It makes me a realist. Wishful thinking in this matter is the sign of a weak mind, easily swayed by emotion rather than logic.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask that the rank emotionalism that characterized this debate be put away and strategy formed by reason, not hysteria. But the GOP leadership, having unleashed and in some ways, encouraged this anger, is now finding it hard to control. How much of this rage is real and how much is exaggerated we’ll never know. But it seems to me that cooler heads must lead the coming fight and that by relying on hyperbolic, exaggerated rhetoric to whip up support for the cause simply isn’t necessary. Just as it wasn’t - isn’t - necessary to lie or exaggerate the worst parts of Obamacare. The bill is bad enough that it should have been defeated on its imprudent, costly, and coercive demerits.

We’ll never know if that approach would have worked. Just like we’ll never know if the Democrats had limited their goals with the bill if any GOP lawmakers would have joined them. Both sides have made their excessively partisan beds and now must lie in them. For the Democrats, everytime someone is in a doctor’s waiting room for more than 2 hours, they will be blamed. Every time a medical outcome goes against a patient, they will be blamed. Every snafu, every bottleneck, everything that could possibly go wrong with an individual’s medical care, the Democrats will be blamed. They bought the health care system lock, stock, and barrel. That’s the price they are going to pay for failing to heed the calls for prudence, and rational reform.

For the GOP, they will have to take care that they don’t appear to favor repeal at the expense of the weakest members of society. This is where “replace” comes in and where the GOP better step up to the plate with a better idea than simply throwing 30 million people into Medicaid. I think they can do it, but they have to get the base to agree that there’s a problem with the health care system to begin with. Once that’s done, the Republicans could move forward aggressively with an alternative to Obamacare; cheaper, more realistic, and one that addresses the real problems that the GOP failed to address during the Bush years.

With an astonishing 55% of Americans wanting to repeal the bill already, it’s not like Republicans will be wandering in the wilderness. With so much of this bill based on coercion, the Democrats may yet discover that when it comes to being told what to do, a majority of American still say to hell with what the Europeans are doing, health care reform is inimical to the first principles of personal responsibility and individual liberty.

By: Rick Moran at 9:02 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (1)