(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Stevens Point Journal and is re-posted here with permission of the author).
Today’s Republican Party Is Out Of Ideas
By David Shorr
Throughout his political career, Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville has built a brand for himself as a man of ideas. In 2016 this means a sharp contrast with the party’s blustery and provocative nominee, Donald J. Trump. It was hard to miss Speaker of the House Ryan’s point last month in Cleveland, where he told the GOP faithful “it still comes down to the contest of ideas. Which is really good news, ladies and gentlemen, because when it’s about ideas, the advantage goes to us.”
Don’t buy it. The Republicans’ problem is bigger than Donald Trump. As they have drifted toward the far right, they’ve traded pragmatism for ideological purity. The result is an utterly unworkable agenda — ideas with no basis in fact or experience. Remember the GOP’s struggles to come up with an Obamacare alternative so they could repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act? They’ve voted to repeal all right, but never got around to unveiling a replacement plan that doesn’t leave tens of millions of Americans uninsured. The difficulty is trying to reconcile laissez-faire fantasies about free markets with health care realities.
The Holy Grail for Republican health care proposals is so-called empowered consumers. As Ryan himself has put it, “Instead of forcing you to buy insurance, we should force insurance companies to compete for your business.” Raise your hand if you think you can squeeze insurance companies for a better deal by being a choosy consumer. Without Obamacare, insurers once again will have the option simply to refuse to insure you.
Republicans often accuse Democrats of thinking the government knows better than the people themselves what’s best for them. But they’re missing the point. Yes, I think the government is better equipped than I am to stop insurance companies from tricking me into a rotten deal on health coverage. Anyone who’s been tripped up by the fine print in an insurance policy or a credit card understands the need for government regulation.
In researching my new book on the policy agenda of today’s GOP, I looked back at how earlier generations of Republicans stood on the issues. In the health care reform debates of the 1970s and 1990s, conservatives actually offered serious proposals. Not coincidentally, those proposals included some combination of employer mandates, individual mandates, government-regulated exchanges for private insurance plans, and/or Medicaid expansion — a.k.a. the dreaded Obamacare government takeover of healthcare.
On issue after issue, the Republicans of yesteryear offered a pragmatic, centrist agenda with the same stances that today’s zealots rail against. As recently as the 1990s, for example, wide bipartisan majorities in Congress voted in favor of increases in the federal minimum wage and nuclear arms control agreements. If you’re wondering whatever happened to bipartisanship, don’t look at the Democrats.
And the current generation is the first since President Herbert Hoover to push for reduced federal spending in response to an economic downturn. Republicans are fond of saying the government can’t create jobs and spreading the lie that President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill failed. But the truth is that the federal government is uniquely able to bolster the economy in a recession. By definition, a recession results from weakness in the private sector — a lesson from the Great Depression learned by everyone but congressional Republicans like Ryan and a few European governments whose economic recoveries have been quite weak. If Republicans had their way and the private sector was left to heal itself, economists at Princeton and Moody’s estimated the U.S. economy last year would’ve had 3.6 million fewer jobs and unemployment of 7.6 percent instead of 5 percent.
Trump is symptomatic of a wider Republican problem. Take his recent claims that widespread cheating by Democratic voters will attempt to steal his victory in November, which rehash an old GOP myth. Wisconsinites especially should know that the purported cheating voter is a bogeyman Republicans use as a pretext for obstacles that make it harder for minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote. A recent federal court case on Wisconsin’s battle over voting showed that the Legislature’s ulterior political motives repulsed at least one of their own. As Republican former state Sen. Dale Schultz said about the laws, “we should be pitching as political parties our ideas for improving things in the future rather than mucking around in the mechanics…and trying to suppress the vote.”
I don’t know whether Schultz recognizes the other problems with his party’s ideas, but at least he wants a fair fight.
David Shorr is a member of the Stevens Point, Wisconsin City Council and author of a new book, “I Call Bullshit: Four Fallacies That Keep Our Politics From Being Reality-Based.”