Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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If Only Republicans Could Get Bored With Health Care Again

By now, Republicans are surely tired of talking about health care. After all, as policy areas go, it really isn't their thing. Ask them about tax reform and they're happy to talk for hours about all their ideas to free job creators from the unfair burden of taxation, but health care? Dullsville, as far as they're concerned. And they've had to talk about it for years now, with no end in sight.

It's a problem of their own making, of course. When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, they could have said, "We don't like this, but now that it's the law, we'll propose our own reforms that could be passed in the future." But that would have required that they actually come up with conservative health care ideas and form a party consensus around them. That's what Democrats did over the decade and a half after Bill Clinton's reform died, but Republicans just weren't all that interested in the policy. So instead, they went on a holy war against the ACA, one that is unprecedented in American history. There have been laws that were litigated and fought over after their passage, but there has never been anything quite like this, with not only a parade of lawsuits but a sustained public campaign with hundreds of millions of dollars spent to tear down the law and one Republican legislature after another practically standing in the hospital door to try to keep people from gaining its benefits.

We've reached a point today where hatred of the ACA—not just opposition, but visceral, passionate, encompassing hatredhas become a defining foundation of Republicanism, no less important than a commitment to low taxes and small government. There are Republicans who believe in an expansionist foreign policy and those who believe America shouldn't get involved in foreign conflicts, and Republicans who believe in opposing same-sex marriage and supporting same-sex marriage. But there is no Republican anywhere who won't say that he or she hates, hates, hates Obamacare.

But here's where things get complicated: The intensity of that opposition has almost nothing to do with the law's actual provisions. Consider that last week, when a group of Republican senators finally unveiled a plan to replace the ACA, they didn't even bother to come up with a bunch of free-market reforms that would supposedly bring about universal and affordable coverage through the magic of the invisible hand. What they offered instead was basically a version of the ACA that's a little more stingy. They accepted most of the law's means and ends but trimmed them back: There would be subsidies to buy insurance (government handouts!), they'd just be worth less; there would be some protection against insurance company denials for pre-existing conditions (government regulations!), but that protection wouldn't be as complete; the restrictions on what insurance companies can charge would be there (more regulations!), but they'd be loosened, and so on. If the ACA is socialism, this GOP plan would be socialism with a less humane face.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the states continue to agonize over whether they should accept the spectacular deal that is the law's expansion of Medicaid. Last week, legislatures in Tennessee and Wyoming rejected plans their Republican governors had negotiated with the federal government to accept the expansion; it was a reversal of the pattern in recent months, in which one Republican state after another had decided to take the money and do the right thing. Tennessee's rejection came after an intense campaign against expansion conducted by Americans for Prosperity, the main political outlet for Charles and David Koch.

Yes, it's an amazing spectacle: The federal government has to bend over backward to convince these states to take billions of dollars in free money to insure their poor citizens, as though the states were doing the feds some enormous favor. But the most notable thing may be that nearly five years after the law's passage, so many Republican states are still torn over whether to sign on. State-level Republican politicians want what the law offers, but don't want to give Barack Obama the satisfaction of seeing them give health insurance to poor people.

Meanwhile, the King v. Burwell case, which if it were successful would take insurance subsidies away from millions of middle-class Americans, will be heard by the Supreme Court in a matter of months. Though the plaintiffs' effort to gut the law has the support of what appears to be every elected Republican in America (if there are any who oppose the suit, they haven't made themselves known), Republicans are being gripped by ambivalence here too, as they suddenly realize that if the lawsuit succeeds, it would be a political disaster for them. No doubt imagining the news dominated by story after story of people losing the help that allows them to afford insurance, they're whipping their heads around looking for someone to blame.

And in an act of truly spectacular chutzpah, some are now complaining that the Obama administration isn't adequately prepared to help those who would lose their subsidies if the Republican lawsuit is successful. "The administration has done absolutely nothing to prepare for an upcoming Supreme Court decision that could leave millions of Americans unable to afford insurance thanks to this failed law," said Senator Ted Cruz. You read that right: Ted Cruz is outraged about the prospect of millions of Americans being unable to afford health insurance if a lawsuit that he supports prevails.

It's possible that once Barack Obama leaves office in 23 months—and presuming the law survives King v. Burwell, which it might notsome of the urgency Republicans feel for the cause of restoring health insecurity to America will dissipate. Perhaps then they'll return to the former state of their feelings about health carenot just bored by the policy details (which they still are), but completely disinterested in the issue as a whole. America should be so lucky. 

Photo of the Day, Noodle Edition

TATSUNO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 06: Japanese somen maker, Yoshinobu Izuhara, uses chopsticks to stretch drying Ibonoito somen noodles on February 6, 2015, in Tatsuno, Japan. Somen is a type of Japanse wheat noodle, served either cold with dipping sauce or hot in broth. Noodle production in Tatsuno city dates back approximately 600 years, and they are known to be some of the best in Japan. About 450 companies produce Ibonoito somen noodles in the area, supplying 40 percent of Japan's somen market. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

Obama and the Fundamentalists


(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama addresses the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, February 5, 2015, in Washington, D.C.


President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, and as always happens, conservatives were terribly offended and outraged at his remarks. Why? It's because Obama doesn't share their political and religious fundamentalism. Let's look at the passage that had them up in arms this time:

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities—the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India—an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity— but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs—acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.

You may read that and say that it's obvious—of course awful things have been done in the name of many religions, and when Obama mentions the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the religious justifications given for slavery, he's talking about old history. You'd have to be nuts to find in that some kind of insult to Christians or to America.

Or you'd have to be a Republican. "The president's comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime," said former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. "He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share." Jonah Goldberg courageously stepped up to defend the Crusades (really). The Washington Times headlined a "news" story on the event, "Obama equates Islamic terrorism with 'terrible deeds' committed by Christians." Erick Erickson did not disappoint, writing a post titled, "Barack Obama Is Not a Christian In Any Meaningful Way."

And on that last note, here's the part I think really pissed them off:

And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt—not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn't speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn't care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Ed Kilgore argues that this is this is revealing of the divide between the liberal Protestantism that Obama holds to and the more fundamentalist, evangelical brand of faith so common among those on the political right. To fundamentalists, Ed writes, "doubt is the opposite of faith; self-righteousness is an essential witness to the truth of faith; and tolerance or acknowledgment of the sins of one's own community is unilateral disarmament in the spiritual warfare involved in converting the whole world."

That was certainly Erickson's argument. Doubt, he plainly believes, is for those who are already headed for eternal hellfire, because "Christ himself is truth. When we possess Christ, we possess truth ... So I wish the President would stop professing himself to be a Christian if he is not going to proclaim Christ as truth and the only way to salvation."

To see where this religious fundamentalism dovetails with right-wing political fundamentalism, you need only read the first paragraphs of Juliet Eilperin's account of the event in The Washington Post:

President Obama has never been one to go easy on America.

As a new president, he dismissed the idea of American exceptionalism, noting that Greeks think their country is special, too. He labeled the Bush-era interrogation practices, euphemistically called "harsh" for years, as torture. America, he has suggested, has much to answer given its history in Latin America and the Middle East.

His latest challenge came Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Eilperin is a fine reporter, but this part of her article could have been penned by Sean Hannity or Cal Thomas. I can't believe that six years later this myth still has to be corrected, but Obama did not "dismiss the idea of American exceptionalism" as a new president. In the remarks she's referencing, which it really appears she didn't actually read, Obama responded to a question by saying, "I believe in American exceptionalism." Read those five words again if it wasn't clear. He did note that the British and Greeks probably believe their countries are exceptional, too, but he then went on to describe all the ways in which America's history and place in today's world make it unique.

And the idea that calling the Bush administration's policy of torture by the name "torture" and not by some euphemism somehow constitutes being hard on America is, quite frankly, insane. Would Eilperin say in a story about health care that because Republicans criticize the Obama administration's health care policies that they're being hard on America? Of course not.

Part of the problem here has to do with the National Prayer Breakfast itself. Everyone in government and the media treats it as though it's an official government event, and one meant for Americans of all faiths to take a pause from the political arguments of the day and contemplate deeper truths. Obama was certainly talking as if he thinks of it that way. But in truth, the breakfast is sponsored by a private group of Christian fundamentalists who have no interest in inter-faith understanding. Most of the people who are there seem to understand that the event is about proclaiming Jesus as the one true savior, even if they're happy to invite the Dalai Lama to attend (who knows, maybe he'll hear the truth and come around).

This comes at a time when many on the right believe that there is not just a "clash of civilizations" going on, but an actual religious war between Christianity and Islam. As the Catholic League's Bill Donohue said after Obama's speech, "We have a problem with Islam. Not just with Islamists, but a problem with Islam." The idea that ISIS or any other group of Islamic extremists perverts Islam is the last thing they want to hear.

This kind of religious fundamentalism usually goes hand-in-hand with a political fundamentalism that says that political figures must constantly assert not only that America is exceptional—which Obama has done dozens of times in speeches and comments over the course of his presidency—but that America has never done anything wrong. Obama's willingness to admit that the country has made mistakes in the past positively infuriates conservatives. If pressed they'll admit that, sure, slavery was bad—but you shouldn't just bring it up!

And of course, it's fine for them to criticize government policies they don't like, because when they do that they're only making a narrow argument about the other party's actions, but when Obama does something like condemn the torture policies of his predecessor's administration, he's attacking America.

I'd certainly prefer it if Obama never went to another one of these. He could say that though presidents have gone in the past, the event has become highly sectarian, and since he's the president of all Americans, he'd prefer to hold his own inter-faith breakfast at the White House, one geared more toward understanding and less toward proclamations of the one true faith. Of course, conservatives would be apoplectic if he did that, saying that it just shows how he hates Jesus and hates America. Which is exactly what they say anyway. So why not?

Photo of the Day, Grumpy Senator Edition

"No, I will not smile. And do you want to know why? Because right now there are dozens—dozens!—of countries that we could be bombing, but we are not currently bombing. What must our enemies be thinking! They're thinking we're weak, that's what they're thinking. So go ahead and call me angry, call me grumpy, call me whatever you want. But I will stand here and glower for as long as I have to until this country gets back on its feet."

News From Elsewhere

In today's Plum Line post, I took a look at an actual health care plan that congressional Republicans unveiled and came to the conclusion that they've basically ceded the argument on government's role in health care:

Again and again in the Republican plan, what they do is take a provision or principle in the Affordable Care Act and essentially say, "We want to do that too, we'll just do it a little less generously." No denials for pre-existing conditions? It's in there, but there are some important caveats (which I'll get to in a moment). No lifetime limits on coverage? In there. Young people up to age 26 can stay on their parents' plan? Yes, but a state could opt out. Subsidies for middle-class people? In there, just up to 300 percent of the poverty level. Coverage for the poor? Yes, just up to 100 percent of poverty instead of 138 percent. Tax on high-value plans? Yep, just in a different way. Government-set limit on how much insurers could vary premiums by age? Yes, but the ratio would be expanded from 3-1 up to 5-1. A mandated list of "essential health benefits" for all plans? Yes, but the states would determine the list instead of the federal government, with more flexibility.

The caveats on pre-existing conditions are important: instead of guaranteeing coverage the way the ACA does, Republicans would create finite windows in which you could get coverage, and if you don't make it in time you'd be out of luck. But it's still notable that they came up with a plan chock-full of regulations and government subsidies, insufficient though they might be.

And in my column for The Week, I noted that this is an unusually young field of Republican presidential candidates, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll make significant inroads among young voters:

The interplay of the candidate and his party will play out differently depending on who that candidate is, of course. Rand Paul's mix of economic conservatism and (relative) social moderation is more in tune with millennials than the positions of many of his opponents. On the other hand, Marco Rubio likes to ham-handedly quote hip-hop lyrics in speeches, which I suppose could appeal to … someone or other. But you can bet they're going to try. If one of the 40- or 50-somethings becomes the nominee, he'll surely accuse Hillary Clinton of having "old, tired ideas." Rubio calls her policy positions "20th-century relics," and everyone knows what he's really saying.