The Republican Experiment

Sometimes the unimaginable happens. Back in the sixties, when it was long hair and talking about the revolution and about not trusting anyone over thirty, the Beatles released that ditty about finally turning sixty-four – and it didn’t seem to be ironic at all. We only pretended it was – we were young and cool college students after all. The Beatles must have been being ironic. This was June 1967 – the start of the Summer of Love – and the world now belonged to the young and we would never be sixty-four – but damn, that really was a charming song about the joy of growing old together, down all the long years, with things turning out rather nicely. That was a nice fantasy, but then the unimaginable happened. We stopped being cool. We got old – we turned sixty-four years ago – and now we’ve seen too much. The good guys turned out to be bad guys.

That would be the Republicans. Our fathers were Republicans. We disagreed with the old man about most everything, but it was respectable to be a Republican. We got that. In the fifties, Dwight Eisenhower had been president, and he wasn’t that bad. Our fathers could point to him, and they were right. Two years ago, Bloomberg’s Sam Tanenhaus explained the man:

A moderate Republican elected in a landslide in 1952, he was appalled by the resistance his proposals met in Congress – not from Democrats but from conservative Republicans, who seemed not to grasp the realities of cold-war America. The country could no longer be isolationist, nor could a Republican president simply roll back New Deal programs that had been in place for almost 20 years and return to pre-Depression fiscal policy.

Eisenhower was so frustrated that in 1953 “he began asking his most intimate associates whether he did not have to start thinking about a new party,” Robert J. Donovan wrote in his book “Eisenhower: The Inside Story,” published in 1956. But Eisenhower was also a pragmatist. “He brought up the case of the Progressive Party which Roosevelt headed as an example of how third parties, even though they may serve a useful purpose at the time, are unable to survive.”

Eisenhower chose a different course. Rather than stalking off on his own, he decided “to persevere in trying to give the Republican Party a new viewpoint and a new complexion,” Donovan noted.

That worked:

When delegates met at the nominating convention in 1956, “modern Republicans” dominated the national committee and held party chairmanships in 41 of the 48 states.

The party’s platform called for raising the minimum wage and a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. On civil rights, it boasted that “more progress has been made in this field under the present Republican Administration than in any similar period in the last 80 years.”

Eisenhower’s re-election, an even bigger landslide than his first, was probably the most effective revolution from above in modern history. And it was remarkably bold. “By emphasizing the distinction between the President and his party, what the campaign strategists did was to read Mr. Eisenhower out of the party,” Richard Rovere observed in The New Yorker.

Cool. Eisenhower was a hippie, or at least what now would be called a liberal, and he dragged his party along with him, but after him, that died:

With no transcendent figure like Eisenhower to turn to and no credentialed leader like Ronald Reagan with a history of appealing to moderate and independent voters, it was left to outsider candidates to expose the party’s depleted ideology. And the current candidates’ ability to maneuver is hampered by their pledge to support the winner of their primary season.

It is not even clear that a true Republican establishment exists any longer. When Robert Siegel of NPR asked Mark McKinnon who its members might be, McKinnon was stumped. “That’s a good point,” he replied. “It will be the big-money donors who get together and say, we need to figure out an alternate solution. And it will be all about the money and who they back.”

Still, he was good guy. Jim Newton has explained that in Eisenhower: The White House Years:

America’s thirty-fourth president was belittled by his critics as the babysitter-in-chief. This new book reveals how wrong they were. Dwight Eisenhower was bequeathed the atomic bomb and refused to use it. He ground down Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism until both became, as he said, “McCarthywasm.” He stimulated the economy to lift it from recession, built an interstate highway system, turned an $8 billion deficit in 1953 into a $500 million surplus in 1960. (Ike was the last President until Bill Clinton to leave his country in the black.)

The President Eisenhower of popular imagination is a benign figure, armed with a putter, a winning smile, and little else. The Eisenhower of veteran journalist Jim Newton’s rendering is shrewd, sentimental, and tempestuous. He mourned the death of his first son and doted on his grandchildren but could, one aide recalled, “peel the varnish off a desk” with his temper. Mocked as shallow and inarticulate, he was in fact a meticulous manager. Admired as a general, he was a champion of peace. In Korea and Vietnam, in Quemoy and Berlin, his generals urged him to wage nuclear war. Time and again he considered the idea and rejected it. And it was Eisenhower who appointed the liberal justices Earl Warren and William Brennan and who then called in the military to enforce desegregation in the schools.

What’s not to like? But things changed in the sixties. Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone told him that move meant that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. The states’-rights segregationist Dixiecrats would become hard-ass Republicans – and they did. Johnson was okay with that. It was better to do the right thing, and the cost was low. He won the 1964 election in a landslide. Barry Goldwater hated that Civil Rights Act and said so, over and over. Goldwater carried the states of the Old South and nothing else at all – no harm, no foul – but that wasn’t the end of it. That was the beginning of the Republicans being the Party of the South – and the South turned out to be everywhere. There was Nixon’s “silent majority” – the folks who hated hippies and the new feminists and school bussing and the “agitators” – Southerner by temperament, even if they lived in Boston or Boise. It was the same with the Reagan Democrats – angry blue-collar white men who felt pushed out of their America.

The South was everywhere now. The first Bush, a highly competent but rather clueless technocrat, didn’t play that card – he might have found that distasteful – nor did his bumbling son, for whatever reason, but the 2010 Tea Party movement was all about those who were white-hot angry that they had been pushed out of their America. They said so, and they weren’t too happy with a black man in the White House either, and the “wrong sort” of people were getting all the goodies. That’s what Donald Trump is saying now. He’s promising these folks their jobs back, which will never come back because those jobs don’t exist anymore, and promising them their “rightful” place in the scheme of things. It won’t be all gays and blacks and Hispanics and Muslims and whatnot anymore, or uppity women either.

It’s a Southern thing. Lyndon Johnson also pushed through the Voting Right Act of 1965 – and now that the Supreme Court has told Congress to rewrite that, the current Republican Congress will do no such thing, and Trump’s new attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, a man of the Old South. He opposed the Voting Right Act of 1965 way back when. He says he’ll support it now, such as it is – that’s the law – but it’s clear that his heart isn’t in it. Message sent. Message received. And there is this:

Add one more to the list of things dividing left and right in this country: We can’t even agree what it means to be an American.

A new survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds Republicans are far more likely to cite a culture grounded in Christian beliefs and the traditions of early European immigrants as essential to U.S. identity.

Democrats are more apt to point to the country’s history of mixing of people from around the globe and a tradition of offering refuge to the persecuted.

That’s from last week. This is a nation of northern European white Christians, damn it! The Trump administration doesn’t even try to hide that view – the initial Muslim Ban was only the crudest expression of that. They just pretty it up when enough people howl loudly enough, or when the courts slap them down – but the South will rise again.

Sam Tanenhaus may be right. Back in the fifties, Eisenhower managed a successful “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party. Long ago our fathers pointed to Eisenhower. He’s a good guy, isn’t he? Yes, he was. Now, after all these years, he seems like an anomaly. This isn’t your father’s Republican Party.

This is, however, the party that is now in control of the White House and the Senate and the House of Representatives. They’re the government now, and they have to govern. They have no choice, but they’re a party built on seething resentment – and seething resentment isn’t public policy. That’s what makes the current situation a bit of an experiment. Turn base metal into gold. Turn resentment into policy, and then make it law.

That’s not going well with repealing and replacing Obamacare. The anger and resentment about Obamacare is clear, if a bit irrational given the good it has done – which they dispute, no matter what anyone says or what the data shows. Put that aside. The real question is what they will do about Obamacare, and Kevin Drum offers this:

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of health care knows that the Republican plan isn’t serious. Paul Ryan knows it. Mitch McConnell knows it. Mike Pence knows it. Mick Mulvaney knows it. Everyone knows it. It’s just a cynical joke. It will cover virtually no one, and will quite possibly destroy the individual insurance market in the process. Its only purpose is to repeal about $600 billion in taxes on the rich.

This is not really controversial or even very partisan. The plan just doesn’t do much of anything for anybody except the rich. But we’re all expected to stroke our chins and pretend that it’s a serious proposal that should be seriously analyzed. There’s something badly wrong about this. Why do we all have to do this?

That’s a good question, and the current state of play is this:

Major associations representing physicians, hospitals, insurers and seniors all leveled sharp attacks against the House GOP’s plan to rewrite the Affordable Care Act on Wednesday, as some Republicans publicly questioned whether the measure can clear the House of Representatives.

While industry groups warned that the proposal could leave vulnerable Americans with fewer protections than they now have, GOP leaders pressed ahead, bringing legislation before two key committees that are expected to approve the bills by week’s end. They were also working in concert with the White House to win over conservatives, who have complained that the proposal preserves too much of the current law.

The flurry of activity – including an evening meeting between President Trump and leaders from five skeptical conservative groups – created new uncertainty about the viability of Republicans’ signature promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.

No flurry of activity is going to fix this:

The barrage of criticism shows how fraught the terrain of health-care policy is. It also reflects a backlash prompted at least partly by the breakneck speed with which House Republicans are trying to push through their proposal – with little upfront effort to work with interest groups or political factions.

“What we’re seeing now is that the political prospects for repealing the Affordable Care Act are as daunting as the effort to pass national health reform,” Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said in an interview.

That’s because that work with interest groups and political factions is part of the job of creating public policy. Generalized resentment doesn’t cut it. They were blindsided by people they should have talked to first:

“We cannot support the AHCA as drafted because of the expected decline in health insurance coverage and the potential harm it would cause to vulnerable patient populations,” James L. Madara, chief executive of the American Medical Association and a doctor, wrote in a letter to committee leaders overseeing work on the bill.

Richard Pollack, CEO of the American Hospital Association, voiced similar fears, saying efforts to “restructure the Medicaid program” by shifting it from an entitlement program to one based on a per capita allocation “will have the effect of making significant reductions in a program that provides services for our most vulnerable populations and already pays providers significantly less than the cost of providing care.”

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the insurance industry’s largest trade association, sent a letter Wednesday saying that while it appreciated several of the proposed changes, the changes to Medicaid “could result in unnecessary disruptions in the coverage and care beneficiaries depend on.”

The only response was more resentment:

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told reporters Wednesday that critics were exaggerating the proposal’s potential repercussions…

Walden said it was “sort of shocking” that hospital groups were strongly opposing the plan, because the GOP legislation restores the ACA’s cuts to “disproportionate share” payments to hospitals that serve large numbers of uninsured patients.

“There’s a pretty big medical-industrial complex in America,” he added. “And when you touch it, I’ve discovered, it touches back.”

Greg Walden dismisses them all – a Republican thing – but there’s the matter of doing your homework:

Democrats threw up procedural obstacles Wednesday in the committee meetings and on the House floor, complaining that it was irresponsible to consider the bills before the Congressional Budget Office offered an analysis that showed the legislation’s impact on the budget and Americans’ overall health care coverage.

“We need to know, what this is going to cost?” asked Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “We need to know, what kind of health insurance is going to be feasible?”

That would be nice to know, and Ilya Somin notes this:

Michael Cannon, well-known health care analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, offered a particularly harsh appraisal, denouncing the new bill as “Obamacare-lite or worse.”

Cannon wasn’t kind:

This bill is a train wreck waiting to happen… The Obamacare regulations it retains are already causing insurance markets to collapse. It would allow that collapse to continue, and even accelerate the collapse…

Republicans don’t seem to have any concept of the quagmire they are about to enter with this bill…

If this is the choice, it would be better if Congress simply did nothing.


As Cannon explains, the new GOP plan has a similar structure to Obamacare, fails to address most of its flaws, and may well make some of them worse. Republicans should take note: If one of Obamacare’s leading critics concludes that your “repeal and replace” bill is even worse than Obamacare, and worse than doing nothing, that’s a pretty damning indictment.

Somin adds this:

I am no fan of Obamacare myself, and was involved in helping develop the constitutional case against it that led to the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius. But I find it sobering that even many of the ACA’s toughest critics fear that the GOP alternative is likely to be worse.

And this:

This entire sorry state of affairs is even more the fault of congressional Republicans than Donald “nobody knew health care could be so complicated” Trump. These had seven years to come up with an alternative to Obamacare, and so far their work product is far from impressive. Sad! Nonetheless, Trump’s ignorance, reckless statements, and disdain for free market ideas have also contributed to the problem.

There’s no way to govern by bluster and resentment, and Charles Lane sees this:

Democrats denouncing the new House GOP health-care bill should actually be dancing in the streets. Perhaps, in the privacy of their own homes, the savvier ones are popping the champagne corks. The true meaning of the proposed legislation is that, after eight years of all-out political and ideological struggle against Obamacare, Republicans have surrendered – pretty much on all fronts.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) should have written the bill on a large white tablecloth and run it up the nearest flagpole.

Yes, yes, the plan is labeled “repeal and replace.” And, true, it does away with many of the Obamacare provisions that conservatives most reviled, including the individual mandate to buy insurance and a bevy of taxes. If enacted and fully implemented, the plan probably would insure fewer people and shift more of the cost down the income distribution scale, in part by restricting the flow of Medicaid funds to the states.

But that doesn’t matter:

Democrats and their allies in the liberal policy community are not wrong to fret about that. However, when they look up from their spreadsheets, what they’ll notice is that much of Obamacare’s architecture remains: The GOP bill relies on regulated and subsidized individual insurance, plus a Medicaid program that would be smaller than it has been since Obamacare began, but still larger than it was before, to fill coverage gaps left by the mainstays of U.S. health care: Medicare and employer-paid plans.

After vilifying that set of interlocking policy compromises as a budget-busting, freedom-destroying ticket to second-rate medical care, the leaders of the GOP House have now declared, in writing, that they don’t have a fundamentally different idea, much less a better one.

That’s not governing at all. That’s pretending to govern, and Paul Krugman adds this:

It goes without saying that Donald Trump is the least qualified individual, temperamentally or intellectually, ever installed in the White House. As he veers from wild accusations against President Obama to snide remarks about Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s doing a very good imitation of someone experiencing a personal breakdown – even though he has yet to confront a crisis not of his own making…

But the broader Republican quagmire – the party’s failure so far to make significant progress toward any of its policy promises – isn’t just about Mr. Trump’s inadequacies. The whole party, it turns out, has been faking it for years. Its leaders’ rhetoric was empty; they have no idea how to turn their slogans into actual legislation, because they’ve never bothered to understand how anything important works.

That seems to be the problem here:

Sure enough, the new plan reportedly does look like a sort of half-baked version of the Affordable Care Act. Politically, it seems to embody the worst of both worlds: It’s enough like Obamacare to infuriate hardline conservatives, but it weakens key aspects of the law enough to deprive millions of Americans – many of them white working-class voters who backed Donald Trump – of essential health care.

The idea, apparently, is to deal with these problems by passing the plan before anyone gets a chance to really see or think about what’s in it. Good luck with that.

There really is no way to govern by bluster and resentment:

Major Republican initiatives are bogged down for reasons that have nothing to do with the personality flaws of the tweeter in chief, and everything to do with the broader, more fundamental fecklessness of his party.

Does this mean that nothing substantive will happen on the policy front? Not necessarily. Republicans may decide to ram through a health plan that causes mass suffering, and hope to blame it on Mr. Obama. They may give up on anything resembling a principled tax reform, and just throw a few trillion dollars at rich people instead.

But whatever the eventual outcome, what we’re witnessing is what happens when a party that gave up hard thinking in favor of empty sloganeering ends up in charge of actual policy. And it’s not a pretty sight.

And it’s not your father’s Republican Party. He was thinking of Eisenhower, a fine president but a lousy Republican. This is the experiment where the Republicans finally control the government, all of it but the courts, and actually have to govern. This is what we feared back in the sixties, when we were young, long ago. We were right.


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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