Possible Responses When Cornered

Back in the early fifties, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, kids could catch the last of those Republic serials on the giant consol television with the tiny rounded black-and-white screen that took up a big chunk of space in the living room – and the fifteen episodes of Atom Man versus Superman were pretty cool. These were made before there was such a thing as a television series, and Republic Studios had been cranking out these things since 1937 – for movie theaters, to keep people coming back, week after week. This all started with the old silent serials like the Perils of Pauline – run a short film before the main feature, one that ends in a cliffhanger – often there was an actual cliff – and everyone would have to come back to the movie theater the next week to see what happens next. The hero or the sweet young thing was in a real jam, and even if the production values were awful and the dilemmas weren’t subtle, everyone would just have to wait to see how the impossible happens and they escape. In 1937 that might cost you a nickel each week, but everyone came back, and the model worked well enough for early television. The images might have been small and fuzzy but everyone had to know what happened next. It’s a matter of locking in a paying audience, in the theaters, or one that will sit through a whole lot of stupid commercials, in the case of television. Now television shows end with everything resolved at the end of the half-hour or the end of the hour, which is appropriate to the here and now. People had actual patience back then. They don’t now, for anything.

That’s too bad, because we’ve come to a point in American politics where everything is a cliffhanger, all the time. The latest cliffhanger involves Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act is the law, and the Republicans hate that, but the option to defund it is all they have left. It’s do or die. They’ve been toying with the idea of refusing to pass a continuing resolution to fund all government operations, shutting down the entire government unless Obama defunds the thing and makes it go away, or the current thought, waiting a few more months and refusing to raise the debt limit, forcing America to default on all outstanding Treasury bills and causing a worldwide financial collapse unless he does so. Both options are spectacularly counterproductive – it would be national misery or several generations of worldwide misery – one or the other, or both. No one wants either. They’d be blamed for either, so they’re cornered. Cooler heads in the Republican Party are telling their colleagues not to try either, and they may prevail, or they may not. It’s a cliffhanger.

There is a way out of their dilemma. They could present a wonderful conservative alternative to Obamacare, something the nation would rally around and even Democrats would vote for, but as discussed previously, they really don’t think there should be one – and one of the readers here put it well:

When it comes failing to coming up with a healthcare policy, the Republicans biggest unsung problem is, they have never really defined the problem that a health policy would solve. Nor has anyone ever forced them to.

In fact, I’m convinced they don’t, in their heart of hearts, believe there is any problem, but are afraid to admit that out loud. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, given the chance to be honest, they’d rather just say, “It ain’t broke, so let’s not fix it.” They do, after all, actually believe this is just another case of “personal responsibility” – that everyone should take care of their own health, and nobody should have to be held responsible for anyone else’s.

What’s really weird about this “individual responsibility” obsession of conservatives is how these same people also so often use the U.S. Constitution like a club to hit liberals over the head, without realizing that the Constitution is a “collectivist” document: It doesn’t begin with the words “I, the Person”, it starts with “We, the People…”

What they don’t seem to get is that we invented all this together, for the common good. It’s a document that creates a government for all of us, together, meaning that long ago we decided that we, the people, should be looking out for all of us, as a people.

The thing is that lives really are at stake, and the Affordable Care Act really is the law of the land. Pouting won’t change that, nor will temper tantrums, and threatening to cause untold misery here or all around the world won’t really get rid of this law that was passed, nor will one more self-righteous lecture about personal responsibility and the moral inadequacy of those who just don’t have enough of it, even if they’re working three jobs and really do. All of that is an inescapable trap. It goes nowhere. The thing was passed fair and square, and declared quite constitutional by the Supreme Court, and that’s that. There will be any number of problems implementing it – everyone knows that and expects that – but this will make life a lot better for millions of people, and make them freer to get on with the business of life. An exasperated Newt Gingrich has said that Republicans have to be able to explain to people what they would do to make their lives better – that’s the only way out of the trap. Offer an alternative. That’s the only way off the cliff.

Someone was listening. Karl Rove was listening:

The president and his liberal posse have a fundamental, philosophical objection to conservative ideas on healthcare. They oppose reforms that put the patient in charge rather than government, that rely on competition rather than regulation, and that strengthen market forces rather than weaken them. …

In the past, with a few exceptions, Republicans talked too infrequently and with insufficient passion about healthcare reform, leaving the field to the Democrats. There’s a different political reality today.

That’s it? That’s the same old stuff – the free market is the way to assure cheap and superbly effective health insurance for everyone, even for those with preexisting conditions, because totally unregulated competition will weed out the crappy stuff – no one will want to buy it. That’s the Adam Smith Invisible Hand argument. That also assumes that any system run by the government, or even lightly regulated by the government, will be a mess, because more government is always the problem, never the answer. Ronald Reagan said so. If so, elected officials should have no say in healthcare. They know nothing about it. It’s not a new argument, and Kevin Drum argues that liberals really don’t have any fundamental philosophical objection to conservative ideas on healthcare:

Actually, liberals have a fundamental, philosophical objection to the tired repetition of stale ideas that (a) plainly won’t work, (b) have no political support, and (c) contra Rove, inspire no genuine passion among Republicans other than as a way of pretending that they have a health care plan.

It’s pretty simple:

Rove’s “plan” would blow a huge hole in the deficit; wouldn’t reduce costs; and quite likely would decimate the current employer-based system without covering any of the people with pre-existing conditions that are tossed out on their asses. And the worst part of it is that Rove knows all this perfectly well. He just doesn’t care. He needs words on a page, so he’s put some words on a page.

Drum recommends Aaron Carroll’s point-by-point takedown of each of Rove’s so-called ideas – which maybe wasn’t even worth the effort – but Paul Krugman is terse and pithy:

Not surprisingly, what Rove actually does is demonstrate his party’s intellectual bankruptcy.

Here are the specifics:

It’s always helpful here to keep your eye on the problem of Americans with preexisting conditions. That’s the best starting point for understanding why Obamacare has to look the way it does; it’s also often the best way to see what’s wrong with alleged Republican solutions.

So, ask the following question: how is it that many Americans with preexisting conditions have health insurance now? The immediate answer is, they get it from their employers. But why do employers do that? Well, employment-based health insurance is tax-advantaged: it’s a benefit employers can provide that isn’t counted as taxable income, which makes it better, in some cases, than offering higher wages instead.

But for company health plans to receive this tax-advantaged status, they have to obey ERISA rules, which essentially require that the same benefits be made available to all full-time employees – no discrimination based on health history, and you can’t provide benefits only to your highest-paid workers – so employer-based insurance is, when you come down to it, a lot like Obamacare, with enforced non-discrimination and a fair bit of subsidization of less-well-paid workers.

Now comes Rove, and his big idea is to make the tax break on health coverage available to everyone, not just beneficiaries of employer plans. Great! Now employers can say “Here, we’ll eliminate your coverage, but we’ll pay you more, and you can use the money to buy tax-deductible insurance on your own!” Except that employees with preexisting conditions won’t find insurers willing to offer them affordable coverage – oh, and lower-paid workers won’t be able to afford coverage even if they’re healthy.

Maybe Roves sees that as a feature, not a bug, or maybe he wasn’t thinking things through:

It goes on from there – the interstate competition zombie shambles on – but you get the point. Rove has nothing but the usual catchphrases, and obviously hasn’t thought for a moment about the actual issues.

Ah well, Karl Rove is just one of those cooler heads trying to talk his party down of the cliff, but there’s another way to look at the nifty conservative alternative to Obamacare, and Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress reports on that:

Heritage president and former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint continued his campaign to convince Republicans to shut down the government in a ploy to defund the Affordable Care Act on Wednesday, telling a town hall in Tampa, Florida that “This might be that last off-ramp to stop Obamacare before it becomes more enmeshed in our culture.” The law “is not about getting better health care,” he continued. Uninsured Americans “will get better health care just going to the emergency room.”

There you have it, for what it’s worth:

The claim may be a standard line for today’s Republicans, but it is a stark departure for DeMint and the think tank he now leads. In 1989, the Heritage Foundation was at the forefront of advocating for a requirement to purchase coverage through as system of regulated health care marketplaces, the very centerpiece of Obama’s health care reform, and later lobbied Congressional Republicans to offer the initiative as an alternative to President Bill Clinton’s health proposal.

More than a decade later, Heritage boosted former Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R-MA) health reform law and the individual mandate included in it, describing the requirement as “one that is clearly consistent with conservative values.” A Heritage health care analyst said Romney’s proposal would reform the state’s “uncompensated-care payment system,” force residents to take “personal responsibility” for their health care and prevent them from simply showing up “in emergency rooms.”

Indeed, DeMint himself backed the effort when he endorsed Romney for president in 2008.

“That’s something that I think we should do for the whole country,” DeMint told Fox News. “And the governor just looked at the numbers like a good businessman and realized that we could give people private insurance policies cheaper than we could provide free health care.”

Volsky points out the obvious:

The so-called “free” care at emergency rooms is a result of The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act or (EMTALA), which requires hospitals that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding to treat patients for emergency medical conditions regardless of legal status or ability to pay. But EMTALA only applies to medical emergencies like heart attacks or serious injury. It does not offer any treatment for chronic conditions, leaving the millions of Americans with diabetes who need regular access to medication to stay alive, or asthma patients, or women diagnosed with breast cancer without access to care.

Studies also show that not all emergency room patients have equal outcomes. The uninsured who suffer “traumatic injuries, such as car crashes, falls and gunshot wounds, were almost twice as likely to die in the hospital as similarly injured patients with health insurance.”

Volsky has links for all that, if you want to drill down, but what it comes down to is that Jim DeMint just isn’t as deep a thinker about public policy as is Karl Rove. Look! An emergency room!

This is no way down off the cliff, but then one must deal with the likes of Erick Erickson who offers this this:

Ted Cruz has not proposed shutting down the government.

Mike Lee has not proposed shutting down the government.

Congressman Meadows has not proposed shutting down the government.

In fact, everyone who supports defunding Obamacare has been very clear that they’ll vote for a continuing resolution, just not for Obamacare funding. If the government shuts down over that, it would be Barack Obama insisting his health care plan nobody wants gets funded.

Digby (Heather Parton) is not impressed:

It’s possible they’ll be able to convince every member of their hardcore Tea Party base to interpret events in exactly that way. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the leadership of the party, even the right-wingers, understand that normal people will see that it’s the Republicans shutting down the government. Because – reality.

Here’s a dose of that reality:

A new poll done for Republican members of Congress has found huge public opposition, and solid opposition among Republicans, to the idea of shutting down the government over the issue of funding Obamacare.

In a national survey of 1,000 registered voters done July 31 and August 1, the question, from pollster David Winston, said, “Some members of Congress have proposed shutting down the government as a way to defund the president’s healthcare law” and asked respondents whether they favored or opposed that plan.

Overall, 71 percent of those surveyed opposed a shutdown, while 23 percent favored a shutdown. Among Republicans, 53 percent opposed, versus 37 percent who favored.

Oops – but it gets more interesting:

Republican men favored a shutdown by a narrow 48 percent to 44 percent margin. But Republican women opposed it by an enormous 61 percent to 29 percent margin.

Among Republicans who called themselves conservative, those who said they are very conservative favored shutdown by 63 percent to 27 percent, while those who said they are somewhat conservative opposed shutdown by 62 percent to 31 percent. Overall, Republicans who call themselves conservative were evenly split on the issue, 46 percent to 46 percent.

Conservative Republicans make up about 19 percent of the entire electorate. Of that number about nine percent call themselves very conservative, while ten percent say they are somewhat conservative. What the poll suggests is that even that conservative cohort is deeply split on the defunding initiative.

They’ve painted themselves into a corner, or they’re on the edge of the cliff, ready to jump to prove their point. Lemmings come to mind:

Proponents of defunding will likely challenge the premise of Winston’s question, arguing that defunders are not proposing to shut down the government but rather want to fund all government operations other than Obamacare. But there is no doubt defunding advocates do anticipate a possible shutdown; their hope is to persuade the public to blame President Obama, and not Republicans, for it. The new numbers suggest they will have a lot of persuading to do.

It doesn’t matter – see Sarah Jones at PoliticusUSA – John Boehner Rigs a Poll to Convince His Own Republicans Not to Shut Down the Government – as she likes it out there on the cliff.

David Freddoso at Conservative Intelligence Briefing is not impressed:

If you think you can get the Democratic Senate to pass (and Obama to sign) a bill that funds the government while defunding Obama’s absolute top priority without first going through a prolonged government shutdown – and we’re talking weeks or months here, not days – then you’re just not being serious. This has no chance of success unless you shut the government down for a very long time.

The guy already lost the House so that he could get Obamacare – do you really think he’s going to cry uncle one week into a few embassy closures? Obama cries uncle only when tens of thousands of government employees start having their homes foreclosed because they’re not being paid.

It is one thing to think you can gain some ground in a shutdown-showdown by haggling over levels of spending or even forcing a delay to the individual mandate or something like that. But this isn’t going to happen here, and that’s probably why there won’t be nearly enough votes to carry out this threat.

Just don’t do this:

Conservatives will shoulder all of the blame. As this poll suggests, it’s going to displease quite a few voters, including those who already plan to vote for Republicans in the next election and those who describe themselves as “somewhat conservative.” It’s fairly popular with the nine percent of the electorate that describes itself as “very conservative.”

No one wins anything with nine percent:

The defund-or-shutdown effort – and that’s what it is – represents a threat, something along the lines of: “Do what I say, or I’ll shoot myself in the leg.” I’m all for making threats, using leverage, and risking elections to get good governance, but this is not an effective tactic, because it’s in the other person’s interest to let you shoot yourself. Obama would welcome a shutdown – why should he come to the table to stop Republicans from wounding themselves for nothing?

Digby did say something about reality, and here we have this conservative speaking to conservatives:

The last chance to stop Obamacare from starting came in November 2012. Now it’s going to go into effect, and it’s going to fail, and people are going to be upset. This shutdown tactic won’t stop Obamacare, but it might cost Republicans the House, a Senate majority, and any chance of repealing or scaling back the law in the future. In short, if you want to give Democrats the opportunity to replace Obamacare with a single-payer system after it falls apart, then this government shutdown-showdown is a good way to do it.

Fine, but what is the best response when you’re cornered, when there’s no way out? Poor Pauline was always tied to the railroad tracks, and a week later everyone would find out that the good guy arrived in the nick of time to save her – and it wasn’t Karl Rove. It was the same with the old Republic serials – a week later everyone discovered the hero didn’t fall out of the plane to his death – it was only a sack of mail or something. Each week opened with something no one expected, making things just fine, and closed with another sure-death situation for the hero or the sweet young thing. Everyone had to wait a full week to see how that one came out with the right people just fine after all. It was great fun, and it was nonsense – and it’s no way to run a country.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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