Earlier this month, California congressman George Miller took to the floor of the House of Represent-atives and, in a vitriolic speech, shouted that the Republicans were shutting down the government because of a “jihad” against Obama-care. Miller is a far-left liberal, but he is no backbencher. A 38-year veteran of the House, he is the ranking member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, serving as its chairman during the efforts to pass Obama-care. His comments are not far out of the mainstream of liberal rhetoric on the shutdown, either, with Democratic politicians and leftist opinion writers using words like “terrorists,” “arsonists,” and “anarchists.”
In the age of Obama, a go-to liberal complaint about conservatives is that they have some sort of mental illness. The president himself once suggested as much, saying that the bitterness of small-town residents is what keeps them from embracing his policies. But this recent line of attack suggests rational behavior—and seditious behavior. Conservatives, so the new liberal logic goes, hate the government so passionately they want to burn it down. We don’t send people like that to the loony bin; we send them to jail.
Two hundred fifteen years ago, the Federalists thought much the same of their Jeffersonian opponents. And they had the courage of their convictions: Genuinely believing that the Jeffersonians threatened the government, the Federalists outlawed their political activities via the Sedition Act. Since Rep. Miller, the talking heads on MSNBC, and the opinion writers at the New York Times have so far not called for a reconsideration of the Sedition Act, it seems that today’s talk from the left is merely that.
History certainly argues against the Republicans-as-criminals meme. After all, partial government shutdowns (and this one has only closed about 17 percent of the federal government, measured by expenditures) have not been an uncommon occurrence in modern times. Shutting down the government over Obamacare is not outside the realm of historical precedent, either. Though its expenditures mostly happen off-budget, the budget debate in this country is implicitly universal. Everything is up for grabs. As for the debt ceiling, that has also been a political football over the years. Voting to raise the debt ceiling is a tough vote for a congressman because it is difficult to explain to the constituents back home. Unsurprisingly, politicians have often extracted concessions for debt ceiling increases, or simply rolled them into omnibus budget packages.
So this talk is just hyperbole from Democrats. The Internal Revenue Service might be scrutinizing Republican tax returns a little more closely, but John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan are not going to be busted for RICO violations anytime soon. Rather, the Democrats’ rhetorical goal is, as always, the mobilization of bias: to identify conservatism as outside the mainstream of American society, not worthy of serious consideration by serious people. When Republicans are out of power, merely complaining about liberal policy, “crazy” is sufficient. Now that they are partially in charge, the rhetoric must be ratcheted up accordingly.
How should Republicans respond? One answer is: Turn the tables by arguing that Obamacare is the truly radical innovation in the American body politic.
Republicans have been arguing a version of this for a while, but with limited success. Usually, they emphasize Obama-care’s takeover of upwards of 20 percent of the economy, the choices taken away from patients and doctors and given to bureaucrats, and so on. It’s all true, but Democrats have some easy retorts: The law is based on Mitt Romney’s health care law; it promotes a marketplace and therefore competition; it promotes individual responsibility.
What we have now is a kind of rhetorical stalemate: Obamacare remains decisively unpopular, but the public has not taken action to get rid of it and does not support Republican efforts to do so.
The GOP must think harder about just how radical Obamacare really is, remembering Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics: who gets what, when, and how.
For 80 years, American politics has centered around two goals: growing the economy, and ensuring that the surplus generated by growth is spread to all sectors of society. They have defined the boundaries of our two-party conflict, with both sides “merely” disagreeing about the best approach to accomplish these shared goals. There has long been one crucial sub-point of agreement: Government never takes anything from the middle class; government either gives to it or leaves it unaffected. Naturally, the two sides bicker, accusing one another of violating this norm, but it is a sign of the centrality of the custom that redistribution never takes from the center.
Until now. Obamacare creates a vast array of winners and losers. Plenty of public policies have done so over the years, but Obamacare is unique in that its losers come almost entirely from the middle class. All across the country, middle-class families are receiving letters from insurance providers telling them their rates are going up, dramatically so. This sets Obamacare apart from most other social welfare programs, especially Medicare and Social Security, whose benefits are universal. It’s “radical” in the sense that it departs from the shared norm that has governed public policy for generations. Democrats are speaking hyperbolically about Republicans violating the rules of the game, but in passing Obamacare, the Democrats have done precisely that.
Talking about limited government, the virtues of competition, and personal decision-making is all well and good. But it has not been enough to induce the public to action. If Republicans hope to win this battle, they need to turn the rhetorical tables on the Democrats. They need to show the public that Obam-care—rather than their own efforts to undo it—is actually the radical innovation.