Not one of Ezra Klein’s more insightful claims:
President Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican of the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.
If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal health care; a cap-and-trade plan that attempts to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans have staked out before.
I’m not at all convinced. I don’t see much evidence that Republicans ever cared about “a plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal health care.” Ezra surely if asked would acknowledge that sometimes politicians introduce bills purely for political reasons–so, for instance, they would have something to point to as proof they’re doing about health care–even if they not only have no intention of acting on it, but would oppose addressing the problem if ever forced to. That Republicans have mostly fought tooth-and-nail against almost every expansion of the health care for Americans means a hell of a lot more in determining the actual beliefs and policies of Republicans than whether various Republicans, while they had majorities in each chamber of Congress, introduced bills that never got a hearing in committee. In short, Ezra is conflating a Republican policy with a Republican proposal, with the latter primarily being an exercise in incumbent protection rather than a serious attempt at advancing and implementing a policy.
Regarding cap-and-trade, he’s just plain wrong. That in 1990 George H.W. Bush proposed a market-based solution on limiting emissions isn’t as relevant as Ezra suggests. In 1990 Bush knew Congress would restrict emissions from coal plants, so he signaled his preferred method of achieving the goal he knew he would have to accept or risk getting pummeled as opposing means to prevent acid rain, a regional problem that if not dealt with could cost him votes in the northeast (which at the time was still competitive for the Republicans). Thus, cap and trade was a signal of resignation by Bush that he’d have to accept the Democratic policy, but to try to do it on more favorable terms. Given the choice Bush probably wouldn’t have pushed cap and trade, he probably would have instead done nothing about limiting sulfur dioxide. It was not an initiative, it was a counter-proposal. It was an term of a compromise.
Last Congress, Obama and the Democrats tried to restrict greenhouse gases, which was vehemently opposed by the Republicans. But it wasn’t opposed because of the mechanism–cap and trade–and the mechanism wasn’t the essence of the Democratic policy. It’s as if one of the parties proposed using a commission to eliminate 40% of the defense budget and someone said it’s essentially the same policy as using BRAC to close military instillations. Or saying the use of no-fault in auto insurance is the same policy as using no-fault in divorce.
Finally, there’s Ezra’s comparison of the 1990 budget deal set against the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in December:
As for the 1990 budget deal, Bush initially resisted tax increases, but eventually realized they were necessary to get the job done.
Again, this wasn’t because Bush realized there was a job to get done, it was because a Democratic Congress that included moderate Republican Senators like Jim Jeffords and John Chaffee was going to feed Bush a bill that included tax increases, and what he had to do was not “get the job done” but to work out a deal. The difference today is not that Obama hasn’t proposed ending the Bush II-era tax rates for the rich. He did! He implored Congress to do it last Summer and Congress didn’t act. No, the difference is that Obama had to deal with hostage-taking behavior by the Republicans. The only reason he got a deal on stuff he wanted is that the Republicans who could block a deal in the Senate by maintaining unity and filibustering any deal–remember, that deal was cut after the November election, when Republicans added members for the lame duck session–but their bottom line was they needed to protect the tax cuts for the rich. In a sense they were hostage-takers, but they still really wanted to escape with some loot. But the loot still had to be paid.
Ezra Klein is a smart guy, and he’s generally insightful. But today’s column strained too hard. Yeah, Obama has advocated using some mechanisms used by Republicans and made deals that look a bit like deals agreed to by Republicans forced to compromise with a Democrats. The compromises Obama had to make with conservative Democrats because of the absence of any Republican moderates may look like the compromises George H.W. Bush had to make with Democrats in the 1990’s, but a compromise isn’t the same as an initiative. But as with so much, context matters a hell of a lot, and the claim that Obama is like a moderate Republican from the 1990’s doesn’t make sense when placed in to a meaningful context.