When someone in any social cohort decides to act like Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s easy and quite natural for everyone else to fall into the role of Bob Cratchit. This is what several Republicans are now doing in reaction to Mitt Romney’s remarks about Barack Obama and his “gifts” to his core constituencies. But Republicans allegedly competing for the loyalties of the 100 percent is a movie we’ve seen. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work for a straightforward reason: free-market solutions to many of the problems faced by the 47 percent simply don’t exist. The GOP has no answer to these problems, and it really doesn’t want to have any. But, boy oh boy, are we about to enter a galling period of hearing them pretend otherwise.
In fact, it’s already started. Bobby Jindal kicked this off by saying in response to Romney, “We need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American dream.” Marco Rubio weighed in with the reassuring news flash that, in fact, he does not think there are “millions and millions of people in this country that don’t want to work.” Fellow Floridian Rick Scott—bless him, the Rick Scott who ripped off Medicare before he became governor and has tried to block Democrats from voting since occupying the office—says Republicans have to say that “we want to take care of every citizen of our state.” Scott Walker, Haley Barbour, Michael Steele, Susanna Martinez, and others have made similar remarks.
All well and good. So now, let’s match this lovely rhetoric to the Republican record of the past decade or so.
Let’s start with health care, a big problem in the lives of many 47 percenters. True, the GOP, when George W. Bush was president, passed the Medicare prescription drug-coverage bill. That was mostly a good thing, although the bill didn’t pay for the program and it created the famous doughnut hole problem that is finally being solved by Obamacare. What else beyond that? Most obviously, they opposed the subsidized coverage for millions of working poor that is at the heart of Obamacare, defenestrating their own proposal (the individual mandate) while doing so.
And how about S-CHIP, the health plan for poor children? Children! They fought it tooth and nail. It was supposedly an imposition on private insurers who were positioned to offer similar coverage. Yet of course, they did not do so. If they had, there’d have been no need for S-CHIP in the first place.
The one health care idea they’ve come up with, health savings accounts, are widely known to be riddled with problems. They work fine until people really need ongoing care, kind of like a car that gets you where you’re going on normal days but won’t start during emergencies. Yet they tend to have very high deductibles, and people can still be thrown off if they get really sick. This is the GOP’s great contribution to addressing the health needs of the working class.
What other problems do the 47 percent face? Hardship in old age surely ranks up there. It’s they, after all, who depend wholly or mostly on their Social Security checks (which average about $1,400 a month) to get by. And what did they see Republicans try to do on this front? Privatize it—a proposal so unpopular that it died with almost no support in Congress from even the GOP, and this after Bush spent weeks barnstorming for it. People clearly don’t want Social Security privatized—just as they don’t want Medicare voucherized.
What else? Paying for college? Oh, the GOP record here is particularly stellar. Republicans in Congress spent loads of political capital fighting the Democrats’ effort in 2010 to lower student-loan interest rates. The Obama student-loan reform has been widely hailed—in addition to helping students by offering lower interest rates, it actually saves taxpayers money by eliminating the middleman (private lenders). This year’s GOP platform called for undoing the reform and going back to the old system, which, wouldn’t you know it, is the position of the big banks.
Believe me, I could go on and on and on for pages. The bottom line is this. These private-sector “solutions” Jindal and others invoke to the problems faced by people of limited means already exist. They have either been implemented and been seen to fail (or at least create big new problems), or they’ve not been implemented because a wary public knows better and has risen up to say no.
Government programs were created for a reason: needs arose that the private sector wasn’t responding to. There was no profit to be made, or not enough, or too much risk to be assumed, in providing health coverage to working-class people and their children, who were more likely to have health issues and be expensive to care for; in offering student loans to people who might not be able to pay them back; et cetera. There just were not and are not practical free-market solutions to these problems. That’s why government stepped in.
If the entire Republican Party were made up of nothing but David Frums and David Brookses, maybe well-designed and good-faith market-based attempts to address some of these problems could have a chance. But the actually existing Republican Party is more accurately represented by another David—Vitter, the Louisiana senator—who dismissed S-CHIP as “Hillarycare.”
And it’s Vitter rather than the other Davids who typifies the party because that is how the party’s voting base wants it. The darkly amusing thing about all this distancing from Romney is that in truth, all he was doing was expressing the views of the overwhelming majority of the party’s conservative base, which rose up in a mighty rage in 2009 against these “moochers” and their “gifts.”
I wish Jindal and the rest of them luck, in spite of it all. If they’re sincere and serious, we’ll have a very different Republican Party five years from now from the one we’ve known. In the meantime, permit me my skepticism. They don’t have good solutions to working people’s problems because the record shows that at bottom, they don’t really want to solve them.