How the GOP Made It Happen

Many liberals were ready to compromise during health care's twisted path to passage. Matthew Yglesias on how the right's just-say-no game helped bring the left together.

As health-care reform passes, I find myself in the unusual position of being enthusiastic about the bill on the merits, but disappointed that its success undermines my skills as a political prognosticator. Barack Obama’s brand of health-care reform is based on a three-legged stool that was popularized in progressive circles back in 2006 and 2007. The stools are new regulations on insurers, a mandate on individuals to buy insurance, and subsidies to low-income families to ensure they can afford to comply with the mandate. Back when this idea was becoming popularized I was, frankly, a skeptic.

My guess is that the brighter minds on the right will recognize that their determination to turn health-care reform into Obama’s Waterloo sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

Not because I thought it was a bad idea, but because I thought the merits of the idea were all out of proportion to its prospects for success. Proponents, noting the basically incremental and business-friendly nature of the plan, thought it could garner bipartisan support. I, noting that “subsidies to low-income families” entails “higher taxes,” was sure that it could not, especially given Mitch McConnell’s strategic calculation that unified GOP opposition can make the progressive agenda unpopular.

More Daily Beast writers on the health-care vote.So when Barack Obama was criticized during the primary by liberals for lacking a mandate that would make it work and this was interpreted as showing a lack of audacity on the subject, I became more enthusiastic about Obama than ever. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards seemed doomed to risk their presidencies on a likely-to-fail big bang health-care initiative. I preferred the idea of a candidate more likely to take a more modest approach to health care and to focus his energy on issues like climate change, immigration reform, or K-12 education, where I thought it might be more feasible to move legislation with support from both parties (this, recall, was back before Tea Party madness swept the nation, when John McCain was a strong cap-and-trade supporter).

But Obama went a different way and, powered by happenstance that gave Democrats a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate for a little while, he’s going to succeed. It’s a historic achievement that instantly rockets him to third place on a podium alongside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as the key architects of the American welfare state. Nancy Pelosi, whose firm but pragmatic brand of liberal leadership was integral to the success, should perhaps go down as the greatest progressive speaker the House of Representatives has ever known.

We should also, however, spare a thought for the unsung hero of comprehensive reform, McConnell and his GOP colleagues, who pushed their “no compromise” strategy to the breaking point and beyond. The theory was that non-cooperation would stress the Democratic coalition and cause the public to begin to question the enterprise. And it largely worked. But at crucial times when wavering Democrats were eager for a lifeline, the Republicans absolutely refused to throw one. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other key players at various points wanted to scale aspirations down to a few regulatory tweaks and some expansion of health care for children. This idea had a lot of appeal to many in the party. But it always suffered from a fatal flaw—the Republicans’ attitude made it seem that a smaller bill was no more feasible than a big bill. Consequently, even though Scott Brown’s victory blew the Democrats off track, the basic logic of the situation pushed them back on course to universal health care.

Today, conservative anger at the Democrats is running higher than ever, and for the first time in years the GOP leadership’s blanket opposition has won them the esteem of their fanatics. But in more sober moments in the weeks and months to come, my guess is that the brighter minds on the right will recognize that their determination to turn health reform into Obama’s Waterloo sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Universal health care has been attempted many times in the past and always failed. The prospects for success were never all that bright. Many of us, myself included, at one point or another wanted to try something more moderate. But the right wing, by invariably indicating that it would settle for nothing less than total victory, inspired progressive forces to march on and win their greatest legislative victory in decades.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.