Progressives, many of whom like to think they're committed to some level of reason and logic even in the operation of political discourse, find themselves awfully frustrated when the topic of discussion turns to the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate. What's so maddening is that for many years, the individual mandate was an idea championed by conservatives as the way to achieve universal coverage without making government everyone's insurer. Ezra Klein has an interview with an economist he describes as "the father of the individual mandate," if you're interested. Most Americans didn't know what an individual mandate was until a couple of years ago, but those who did knew it as the cornerstone of the conservative alternative to single-payer health insurance, the kind of thing a Republican governor like Mitt Romney would build his health-reform plan around.
But then the individual mandate became part of Barack Obama's health-care plan, and suddenly (or so it seemed), the individual mandate became the greatest threat to freedom since the founding of the republic. This idea drives progressives crazy.
But there was a particular set of steps that turned the individual mandate into the greatest threat to freedom in the history of the republic, one that's worth understanding. Republicans had a lot of objections to the ACA when it was being debated, but once it was passed, their legal eagles decided that the strategy with the greatest chance of getting friendly Republican judges to declare the law unconstitutional was to claim that the mandate was outside the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution. Once that became the legal strategy, it was naturally bolstered by a rhetorical strategy. So any conservatives discussing the legal cases and the law more generally on TV or on the radio or in print would talk about the mandate and make the most forceful case they could for why it's awful and unconstitutional. After all, you aren't going to have some conservative pundit go on television and say that the strategy Republicans have adopted to turn back the most important piece of progressives legislation in decades is a bunch of baloney.
So if you're an ordinary Republican, you see all these pundits and public officials from your team talking about how awful the mandate is, and you quickly become convinced that just about the whole problem you have with the ACA is this goddamn mandate, and it's just about the worst way government has tried to take away your freedom in as long as you can remember. If three years ago, somebody had described the mandate to you and asked what you thought, you might have had any number of responses, but you probably wouldn't have had a particularly strong reaction (after all, government requires us to do, and not do, all kinds of things). But not anymore.
At this point, it's not that the ordinary Republican doesn't sincerely believe the mandate is an abomination. He does. But he got to that belief pretty much only because he took cues from the elite members of his team.
-- Paul Waldman
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