Every once and a while, even smart people say or write stuff that makes them look stupid.
Why, even I myself have fallen victim to these little intellectual hiccups. You don’t write on a blog everyday for 4 years and not, on occasion, come up with some really, really lights out, eye poppingly, drop dead clueless, monumentally ignorant stuff. Any blogger or writer who tells you differently is either a liar or so full of himself that the power of their egos would probably light up Chicago. It is an occupational hazard and is impossible to avoid. (I can’t think of anything offhand but I’m sure there are some intrepid commenters out there who would help me out.)
Of course, there are some bloggers and writers out there who make a career of writing brainless, fatuous, jaw droppingly doltish stuff. Village idiots like TBogg or the folks at Sadly No have taken bathroom humor, playground taunts, and pre-teen sex jokes to a level unseen by most adults. I would add the pathologically bigoted writings of Debbie Schlussel and just about everything written by Robert Kagan as examples on the right of writers who make a living penning witless missives, dopey treatises, and uninformed balderdash.
But even very smart, very witty people can fall victim to the Stupid Virus. Take the delightful CNBC host and commentator James Pethokoukis, who also writes a money blog for US News and World Report. He really caught a virulent form of the disease with his post entitled “How Tom Daschle might kill conservatism.”
The GOP strategist had been joking about the upcoming presidential election and giving his humorous assessments of the candidates. Then he suddenly cut out the schtick and got scary serious. “Let me tell you something, if Democrats take the White House and pass a big-government healthcare plan, that’s it. Game over. Government will dominate the economy like it does in Europe. Conservatives will spend the rest of their lives trying to turn things around and they will fail.”
And it turns out that the fearsome harbinger of free-market doom is the mild-mannered ex-U.S. senator with the little, red glasses, Tom Daschle. He’ll be the guy shepherding President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan through Congress via his probable role as secretary of health and human services. At the core of Daschle’s thinking on the subject is the creation of a “Federal Health Board that would resemble our current Federal Reserve Board” and ensure “harmonization across public programs of health-care protocols, benefits, and transparency.” (Forget secretary of state, Hillary Clinton should shoot for chairman of Fed Health and run one seventh of the U.S. economy.) And the subject of that “harmonization” would be a $100 billion to $150 billion a year plan that would let individuals (and small businesses) buy insurance from private companies or from a government plan.
Daschle and the Obamacrats certainly have the momentum: a near-landslide presidential election victory, at least 58 Democratic votes in the Senate, and a nasty recession that will make many Americans yearn for economic security. Already the health insurance companies seem set back on their heels. The industry’s trade organization now says it would accept new rules requiring them to cover pre-existing conditions as long as there was a universal mandate for all Americans to have health insurance. On top of all that, Obama clearly wants to make healthcare reform a priority in his first term, as evidenced by the selection of a heavy hitter like Daschle. And even if he wasn’t interested, Congress sure is, with Max Baucus and Ted Kennedy readying a plan in the Senate. A few observations:
1) Passage would be a political gamechanger. Recently, I stumbled across this analysis of how nationalized healthcare in Great Britain affected the political environment there. As Norman Markowitz in Political Affairs, a journal of “Marxist thought,” puts it: “After the Labor Party established the National Health Service after World War II, supposedly conservative workers and low-income people under religious and other influences who tended to support the Conservatives were much more likely to vote for the Labor Party when health care, social welfare, education and pro-working class policies were enacted by labor-supported governments.”
Passing Obamacare would be like performing exactly the opposite function of turning people into investors. Whereas the Investor Class is more conservative than the rest of America, creating the Obamacare Class would pull America to the left. Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, who first found that wonderful Markowitz quote, puts it succinctly in a recent blog post: “Blocking Obama’s health plan is key to the GOP’s survival.”
I’ll go even further and say that passing Obamacare would turn the US from from being the world’s only superpower into a second class backwater with little more influence than France on the world stage. This may happen anyway thanks to the financial meltdown and the subsequent $2 trillion and rising in bailouts. Let’s face it; trillion dollar deficits and half a trillion dollar defense budgets are an impossibility. They cannot exist in the same universe. You can’t cut entitlements in a deep recession and since there is only around $35 billion in real discretionary spending to be cut, something has got to give somewhere. With Democrats in charge, it will be the defense budget.
But would Obamacare “kill” conservatism? That’s something of a nutty idea considering that it comes from an analysis given in a journal devoted to that wildly successful political philosophy known as Marxism. In a deterministic world where we are all happy little Commie robots, we would “vote our interests” and cast our ballot for the politician who promised us the most goodies. Democrats and liberals have been whining for years that Americans in flyover country have been hypnotized or fooled by Republicans into actually voting against politicians who will give them everything necessary to make their lives easier.
But determinism is dead, killed by the reality that people simply don’t act the way the Marxists say we should act. If they did, I guarantee you the old Soviet Union would still be with us while the United States would have gone the way of the Dodo bird. In the aggregate, people do not make decisions for themselves or their families based on what is best for their “class” or even care much about how their lives might be improved at the margins by voting for big government liberals. It has never been that way in America when voting for president and is only partly true when voting for Congressmen and Senators.
A study done earlier this year and published in the Journal of Leadership Studies revealed some of the real reasons people choose one presidential candidate over the other - and it ain’t because one of them will shower them with gifts from the government:
An article to be published in the new Journal of Leadership Studies (Wiley Periodicals, Inc.) on February 28th discusses results of researching and analyzing data from the seven most recent U.S. presidential elections comparing Democratic and Republican Party candidates who were successful in securing votes. The analysis reveals what tipped the scales with voters and how perceptions of leader intelligence, feelings of pride and hope, as well as feelings of fear and anger, were found to impact the decision process, rather than the issues that candidates present.
Researchers M. David Albritton, Sharon L. Oswald and Joseph S. Anderson used data from the National Election Studies (NES) division of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan to expand upon previous work on voter attitudes, perceptions of leaders, and voter support. They found perceived intelligence, inspirational qualities, and charisma to be key factors in the formation of voter opinion. Instead of the varying positions on issues, voter’s perceptions of these key traits are found to be predictors of whether or not that voter will consider a leader to be of high quality.
How a candidate’s charisma as well as how fear plays into a voter’s evaluation was also examined. Intuitively perhaps, fear played a negative role toward a candidate. Individuals who generated stronger feelings of voter fear were considered “lower quality leaders.” However, fear also helped shape positive behaviors toward a rival candidate. Surprisingly, charisma, traditionally considered an asset, was often viewed negatively when framed in the context of manipulating others toward personal gain.
The vote for president is the most personal political decision most Americans make. Political pros have known for decades, thanks to several landmark social psychology studies, what goes into the decision making process of citizens when they choose a president. First, as with any politician, it is likability that is most translatable into votes. Next comes shared values or comfortability. The third is fear of the alternative. Ideology plays into the comfortability index while positions on the issues and campaign promises are almost always way down the list.
Voting for other federal offices is not quite as personal but for House members especially, it is not national issues as much as it is local concerns that determine competitive races - a dwindling number thanks to finely honed redistricting techniques. More than anything, what will keep Democrats in power will be how the new Congressional district lines will be drawn following the 2010 census.
The Senate is a different story but is still an electoral body dominated by incumbents thanks to their massive advantage in fundraising, name recognition, and their ability to build a sophisticated political ground game over their 6 year term. Here again, likability and shared values mean more than any specific issues.
In the kind of deterministic construct offered by those who believe that Obamacare and other proposed social programs will kill conservatism because people will be so overjoyed that government will offer them “security” that they will vote for big government liberals for the foreseeable future fail to understand that first, we are a different people than the Europeans despite what many on the left who have abandoned the idea of American exceptionalism are telling us; and second, such twaddle reveals a lack of understanding of basic political psychology.
America has been gradually adapting itself to the idea that health care is a right, not a privilege. I would say to my conservative friends that politically - and realistically - we have probably lost this argument. The issue plays to the people’s basic sense of fairness and despite their misgivings about government run boondoggles, would support some kind of national health insurance that guaranteed everyone’s access to at least minimal care.
But I would say to my friends on the left that this doesn’t mean Americans will support the kind of massive intrusion being planned by Kennedy-Baucus or the Obama Administration - especially after conservatives get through informing the public of just what it means to have mandates, “Federal Health Boards” and other cockamamie ideas that limit freedom and choices. There are alternatives - some free market options as well as a mix of government-industry proposals - that would accomplish the goal without having government get on the slippery slope of eventually controlling the entire health care industry.
But even if Kennedy-Baucus were to pass - highly unlikely at this point - would that mean the “death of conservatism?” If Marxism couldn’t be killed off by it’s massive, world wide failures it is extremely difficult to see how conservatism could be executed by the passage of a government program - especially one that would be amenable to alteration once its deficiencies were exposed by its application to the real world. Conservatives may not be able to get rid of national health insurance. But there is no doubt that they will be able to run against its failures by proposing sensible alternatives and reforms.
Conservatism is a philosophy. I have had many arguments with my conservative friends over how to make this philosophy into a real world, governing ideal in a 21st century industrialized democracy. I am unsure if on some level, that “governing ideal” hasn’t run its course and lost its way. Making conservative principles and a conservative approach to issues relevant again will take a careful study of where we went wrong and some fresh ideas of how to translate the principles and values of conservatism into concrete, programmatic proposals that can compete in the great American marketplace of ideas once again.