Politics

02.10.14

When Conservatives Cry Wolf

The Republican Party claims—once again—that it's ready for change. But really, all this fanfare seems more like a howl for Washington's attention and a ploy for PR.

There were two important developments in the Republican Party last week. Let’s take stock.

First, after years of saying that yes, they would develop and introduce an alternative to Obamacare, three GOP senators finally presented one: Orrin Hatch, Tom Coburn, and Richard Burr unveiled what they call their PCARE plan (yes, it’s another one of those syrupy, dopey Washington acronyms that have become such a pestilential constant in our city). Conservatives exulted; “See? We can be serious about policy!” But as Jonathan Chait wrote, the thing was awfully general and sketchy, and as soon as people started asking serious questions about how this or that would work, “things began to fall apart.” As of now, the plan has evanesced into something that no one really takes seriously and everyone recognizes for what it is—a mere talking point, a general outline that exists solely so Republicans can go on teevee and say they have a plan.

The second development occurred several days ago when John Boehner promised big movement on the immigration front. We’ll do a bill this year, he said. No citizenship, no “amnesty,” but a process toward legal status. The Republicans were ready to cut a deal. Boehner posted his guidelines for reform on his web site Monday. By Friday, 4,500 comments had been posted, roughly 95 percent (or more!) of them negative (“Please tell the Jews that we don’t want their One World Order. If they like immigrants send them to Israel[sic],” wrote user “Barbara Cornett”). At the end of the week, Boehner suggested that immigration reform might not, after all, be on the docket this year. (Update: I softened this language from the original, at the suggestion of Greg Sargent, and he's right about Boehner's words, although I remain a hard-shell skeptic.)

Remember when we had a “budget deal” in December, and the government didn’t shut down again, and negotiations didn’t go until the eleventh-and-a-half hour? At that point, we actually had some people talking about the dawn of a new day in Washington. Maybe the Republicans really were changing their stripes.

When an alcoholic is destroying a family, it’s his drinking, self-denial and lies that are creating the problem. But a lot of the time, the family contributes, too. It’s in, perhaps, its own state of denial. “Oh it’s not so bad, really. Oh he’s under lots of pressure. I think he can stop, I really do. Maybe not just yet. As soon as he gets through this (intense time at work/family illness/etc.).”

This is what the larger Washington establishment has become: The enabling spouse of the drunk. “They’ll change. I just know it. This time, I really don’t see how they can’t. I mean, supporting immigration reform is so clearly in their own self-interest!” And certainly, it is. But laying off the sauce is certainly in the alcoholic’s self-interest, too. In that case, we all understand why the alkie doesn’t stop. It has nothing to do with self-interest. He knows his own self-interest. But he can’t change until his shame and disgust with himself is such that he’s ready to try.

With the GOP, it’s more complicated, because this isn’t just one person’s conscience. It’s an entire machinery of ideology-fueled delusion and rage. In fact, now that I think about it, our two examples above are perfect, because each describes the two huge problems with the GOP extremely well. They also explain why they’re not going to be putting down the bottle anytime soon.

The healthcare vignette provides us a textbook example of how the GOP has retreated into policy fantasyland. The specific policy point on which the plan began to unravel was as follows: Our GOP trio proposed, of course, a way to cover more Americans, because that’s pretty much the point, right? Right. Okay. Well, to cover more people, you have to spend money, which means you have to come up with a way to finance it.

Obviously, that’s a pretty thorny dilemma for Republicans. But the trio decided to finance their healthcare expansion by placing a cap on untaxed health benefits. That is, healthcare benefits are untaxed right now. So Hatch, Burr, and Coburn would have taxed benefits starting at about 65 percent of the average cost of a plan.

In other words—yes, a tax increase! An expert from the Kaiser Family Foundation told Talking Points Memo: “This would be a meaningful hit on people. It's a big radical change. This is not an incremental thing, and it affects most people under 65.” So, they quietly changed it, raising the cap, which obviously means less revenue and less coverage.

You can imagine what those three would have said if Obama had put forward something like this. (He proposed a tax on “Cadillac plans,” but they affect only a small percentage of health consumers.) So why would they do the same? Because they live in policy fantasyland. This plan wasn’t intended as anything serious. It was created for public relation purposes only.

Immigration showcases the other malignant GOP tumor: The rage of the base. The base won’t permit immigration reform. It’s pretty much that simple. Boehner, of course, could stand up to that base, and he’d pass a bill, with mostly Democrats. But he just told us he’s not going there.

And so it goes. People often ask me, Tomasky, when do you think they’re going to change? The answer, of course, is it depends. If they somehow capture the White House in 2016, then there’s no incentive to change, and the future is pretty bleak. But if they lose to Hillary Clinton, and she wins reelection, then I do think that by 2024 it will finally be a different party. Is that supposed to be reassuring? That’s a decade away!

In the meantime, they will keep doing what they do. I really wish Washington would stop enabling them, but people are nervous about their nonprofit status, their funders and board members, and are simply devoted to the idea that both parties are responsible. They’re helping the drunk stay drunk. As my friend Bill B. says, from their comments and actions on healthcare and immigration, to contraception and most everything else, the Republicans keep telling us who they are. When are people going to believe them?