Dime-Store Obamacare

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/03/28/dime-store-obamacare/


In the nascent days of post-World War II conservatism, Senator Barry Goldwater coined a phrase that defined the limited political goals of moderate Eisenhower-era Republicans. Goldwater referred to the Administration of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower as a “dime-store New Deal.” Disappointed in the GOP’s contentment with the post-New Deal status quo, the Arizona Senator, along with notable allies like National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., advocated rolling back New Deal bureaucracies, rather than making them permanent arms of the federal government.

Goldwater and Buckley lost the immediate political battles with big government Democrats and the Eastern Republican establishment. But in the coming decades, they ultimately won the heart of the Republican Party with their vigorous and consistent conservatism.

Finding inspiration in Goldwater’s words, it’s no exaggeration to call today’s establishment Republican health insurance plan “dime-store Obamacare.” Anyone from Massachusetts may even consider applying the less-flattering label, “dime-store Romneycare,” after the father of the much-loathed individual mandate, Governor Mitt Romney. In his 2012 presidential campaign, Romney selected Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate; coincidentally, it fell to Speaker of the House Ryan to “repeal and replace” former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act modeled on the first-in-the-nation individual mandate imposed by then-Governor Romney and the liberal Democrat majority on Beacon Hill in 2006.

Speaker Ryan’s health-care gambit yielded to the spirit of Goldwater conservatism, when the House Freedom Caucus refused to buckle under pressure; caucus members upheld the principle that Republicans must no longer rubberstamp whittled-down big government benefits, bureaucracies, and regulations, just because Democrats previously approved bigger government impositions. Freedom Caucus members were unwilling to support a Republican bill that replaced the Democrats’ Obamacare with the GOP’s “dime-store Obamacare.” They saved the Trump Administration and Republican Congress from owning a piece of legislation bound to increase spending, hike family health insurance premiums, and trigger an unending wave of migraine-inducing news stories about ailing working folks “thrown off” Trumpcare or Ryancare.

The Freedom Caucus acted precisely as Senator Barry Goldwater might have, facing a similar dilemma during the Eisenhower years.

It’s well to remember that before he entered politics, the future senator managed the family business, the leading department store in Phoenix named Goldwaters. Therefore, his coining the term “dime-store New Deal” carried special insights. First, it exposed the Eisenhower Administration’s willingness to preserve the massive expansion of the federal government under President Franklin Roosevelt; programs designed to ameliorate the Great Depression became fixed aspects of governance in good times and bad. 

Second, and this probably irritated Eisenhower Republicans more than anything, the “dime-store” appellation implicitly accused the GOP of passively accepting liberal Democrat goals, while trying to provide benefits “on the cheap.” On this point, the former retail executive Goldwater knew of what he spoke. A dime store could never provide the customer service nor the quality of goods that a department store routinely provided. When customers could not afford the “real thing” at Goldwaters, they bought an inferior approximation at the local dime store. 

Goldwater’s implication was clear. Democrats introduced expensive high-quality benefits packaged in another bloated bureaucracy. Moderate Republicans then endorsed Democrat goals, but tried to find trifling ways of “cutting corners” and reducing costs. Regardless of the efficiency added or the future costs supposedly contained, the overall Democrat policy still stood. And because of the vagaries of out-year projections, the costs never seemed to come down. Even in the tranquil 1950s, government bureaucracies tended to grow. And grow.

Goldwater and Buckley conservatives of the 1950s would certainly recognize the dime-store characteristics of the failed health insurance plan submitted by Speaker Ryan. Although philosophically conservative himself, Ryan has become a creature of the Washington he’s trying to tame. Upon college graduation, Ryan joined the legislative staff of Wisconsin Senator Bob Kasten. He followed that with positions as speechwriter for former Congressman Jack Kemp and legislative director for Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. In 1998, Ryan himself was elected in Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district.

Having spent virtually his entire adult life in or on the fringes of the federal government, Ryan has morphed from conservative innovator to restrained reformer to consummate insider. His rhetoric emphasizes such euphemisms as the need for “governing,” bending cost curves, and balancing budgets at some distant future date; even after pulling his health care bill, he lapsed into Washington rhetoric about “moving from an opposition party to a governing party.” Such devices may significantly improve upon unlimited Democrat expansionism, but they also play right into the hands of the permanent bureaucracy. And they give the Democrats the best of both worlds:  After achieving most of their overarching policy aims, Democrats can excoriate Republicans for short-changing recipients, for not going far enough, for cruel cuts targeting the poor.

Ryan’s “dime-store Obamacare” retains much of the Obama/Romney hyperbole about health insurance coverage for all. It mimics the Obamacare individual mandate, shifting responsibility for imposing the draconian assessment from the IRS to the insurance companies, yet penalizing individuals and families nonetheless. It maintains small-print, telephone-book-size government regulations, which have forbidden desirable low-premium/high-deductible catastrophic plans that may be particularly suitable for young people. It provides new tax credits, traditionally criticized by conservatives as another form of entitlement. The political legerdemain of shifting medical costs from big government programs to private citizens’ pocketbooks will still create massive financial imbalances that favor bureaucracies and hurt working families. Speaker Ryan even gives a delayed go-ahead to President Obama’s dreaded “Cadillac tax,” an unprecedented overreach of government taxing powers to punish workers who have negotiated top-tier health insurance plans.

And to think we imagined this was all about improving health care!

In truth, it is not about “care,” but about insurance, whether provided by behemoth insurance companies or by behemoth government. Either way, taxpaying families, responsible workers, and small businesses are likely to be the losers. Bureaucracies, whether corporate or federal, will continue to prosper and grow. And on top of it all, those most concerned with providing their families with comprehensive health insurance will ultimately be burdened with a punitive “Cadillac tax.”

Just as shopping at finer department stores was once a sign of middle class prosperity, driving a Cadillac was an aspiration for many professionals and small business owners. That surely was the case in the 1950s, when Goldwater and Buckley warned about the pitfalls of ever-encroaching government. Undoubtedly, both would be disappointed that some Republicans have learned little in the intervening decades. Today, they would surely be sounding the alarm about the dangers inherent in “dime-store Obamacare.” And they would applaud the Freedom Caucus for defeating it.