If you want to understand the depths of Republican intransigence on health-care reform, I'd encourage you to read Ezra Klein's interview with Sen. Lamar Alexander. Alexander is not the most conservative senator, or the one most prone to the kind of bomb-throwing and mendacity that characterizes some of his colleagues. Which is why it's so revealing to hear him actually try to explain his position to an interviewer willing to press him.
If you're a Republican who wants to seem like a serious person, part of the problem when discussing your opposition to health-care reform is that most of the key arguments your side has made are based on either distortions or outright lies. There are no "death panels," no "government takeovers," no "socialism." Everyone understands the simple political reality: If reform passes, it will be very good for Democrats, and if it fails, it will be very good for Republicans.
But of course, Republicans can't say that. So in an attempt to sound like he has come to his position by way of a process of reasoned consideration, Alexander declares that he opposes health-care reform because "It is arrogant to imagine that 100 senators are wise enough to reform comprehensively a health-care system that constitutes 17 percent of the world's largest economy and affects 300 million Americans of disparate backgrounds and circumstances." In other words, the Senate, with its mere 100 members, shouldn't be trying to pass laws and solve problems, because hey, our country is really big.
But as Ezra points out, Alexander was a co-sponsor of the Wyden-Bennett health bill, which proposed a far more radical reform of our health system than the one currently under consideration. Wyden-Bennett essentially eliminates the employer-based insurance system, along with Medicaid and S-CHIP, and requires everyone to buy private insurance through state-based pools (there's an explanation here). Though a lot of health policy wonks think it's an excellent plan, it upends most people's insurance, making it much more of a change than the current reform, under which most people don't see much change at all.
So when Ezra presses Alexander on this, the senator essentially hems and haws, without making any substantive critique of the reform now being debated: "What I was trying to do with Wyden-Bennett was encourage bipartisanship. ... If we were Belgium or Denmark, we could do comprehensive things all day long. But we're 300 million people. ... One thing is you can't be sure what's in the Senate bill because it's 2,100 pages long. ... I think thinking a small group of people are smart enough to impose, by law, a top-to-bottom change, is too much." And then, a perfect coda to a maddening discussion: "The Wyden-Bennett bill was simpler, with fewer surprises, and more straightforward. I liked it because it was bipartisan. I wouldn't have voted for it. "
This is what you get from a reasonable Republican. We can't do reform because we're a big country. We can't do reform because the bill has a lot of pages. We can't do reform because we're not very smart. There's another kind of reform I co-sponsored, but I wouldn't have voted for it.
But I'm sure that if Democrats just work a little bit harder at "reaching out," bipartisanship can be achieved.
-- Paul Waldman
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