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Little lasts for long in the world of politics. Popular politicians grow obscure, national movements wither (Occupy, anyone?), and broad coalitions splinter. One remarkable exception to that general rule, however, is the coalition to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Despite multiple years passing since President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law, the “full repeal” coalition has actually gathered steam.
Today, the possibility of repealing ObamaCare is alive and well, but it largely depends on retaining control of the House of Representatives, winning a narrow Senate majority, and taking the White House. At a time like this, shouldn’t the proponents of repeal be louder and more unified than ever?
Unfortunately, a small fracture has appeared in the powerful coalition, and at a critical moment. Why? Well, take a look at this op-ed recently published in theNew York Times titled “The Conservative Case for ObamaCare.” Written by J.D. Kleinke, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, this opinion piece contains many blatantly wrong or deceptive claims, and he ultimately concludes by claiming that the repeal coalition is both malicious and hypocritical.
It would be unnecessarily tedious to fact-check every inaccuracy, but I do want to address four of the most serious problems with Kleinke’s op-ed.
1.) He fails to define “conservatism”
This might seem like nitpicking, but his failure to define what is and isn’t ”conservative” is a fundamental flaw in his argument. There are currently so many “brands” of conservatism that the word itself needs a bit of clarification in order to be meaningful. In the past, I've defined American conservatism in the following way:
“In practice, American conservatives tend to support the idea of a natural law, and the idea that we may use logic to discern our natural rights under that law. We support the existence of government provided that it is limited to its just and proper duties and powers under the Constitution.”
The following quotation from historian and political philosopher Russell Kirk also usefully defines conservatism:
“The thinking conservative, young or old, believes that we must all obey the universal law of change; yet often it is in our power to choose what changes we will accept and what changes we will reject. The conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time. ‘To conserve’ means ‘to save.’ …A conservative is not, by definition, a selfish or a stupid person; instead, he is a person who believes there is something in our life worth saving.”
Are these comprehensive definitions? No, but they are sincere efforts to get to the heart of what constitutes conservatism. Kleinke makes no such effort, and as a result, he ends up conflating the term “conservative” with “Republican.” Therefore, he argues that conservatives who don’t support ideas once put forward by Republicans (decades ago) are simply hypocrites.
This is an obvious (if common) mistake. Conservatism is a political philosophy, while the Republican Party is a political party. Many Republicans are conservative, but not all conservatives are Republican. Perhaps Kleinke could have titled the op-ed, “The ’90s-Era (Sorta) Republican Case for ObamaCare,” but labeling his argument a “conservative case” is just laughable.
2.) He fabricates the idea that “personal responsibility” is central to ObamaCare
It’s probably fair for Kleinke to refer to personal responsibility as a “hallmark of conservative thought,” even if it isn’t of paramount importance to conservatism. However, claiming that personal responsibility is the cornerstone of ObamaCare is absurd. The individual mandate at the heart of ObamaCare isn’t representative of personal responsibility, it’s representative of government force.
The individual mandate forces Americans to purchase health insurance under the threat of punitive taxation. Where does “personal responsibility” come into the picture? Getting forced to do something isn’t the same as taking responsibility upon yourself to do something. Consider the difference between private charity and public welfare. If you decide to give your time or money to a charity, you’re being generous and compassionate. If the government decides to take your money under the threat of force and redistributes it to the needy, you’re not being generous or compassionate. You’re just being used as a source of funding.
In the same way, buying health insurance out of compliance with the individual mandate isn’t “personal responsibility.” You’re just being used as a tool of the government to fulfill a certain purpose. As Kleinke explains, “…younger, healthier people subsidize older, sicker ones.” This new “accountability” is nothing more than an exercise of government force and an infringement of individual liberty.
3.) He misrepresents ObamaCare’s government-run exchanges
In the op-ed, Kleinke repeatedly insists that ObamaCare’s health insurance exchanges are actually a “conservative” proposal. However, this is an essentially meaningless claim due to his failure to define “conservatism” in the first place. As his fellow AEI scholar, Thomas P. Miller, explains:
“When liberals talk about exchanges, they highlight standard benefits, regulatory policing of market variation, active purchasing roles by government officials to control prices, and large cross subsidies from younger, healthier, and more self-sufficient Americans to older, unhealthier, and more dependent ones. Conservatives talk about more choices, stronger incentives to stay healthy and make smarter decisions, ‘market’ competition with willing buyers and sellers, and privately managed exchange options.”
The government-run exchanges are a far cry from the private-sector exchanges advocated by some conservatives. Ludicrously, Kleinke also attempts to tie association health plans (AHPs) in with ObamaCare’s exchanges. AHPs allow small businesses to band together to obtain lower health insurance rates. The relationship between the government-run health insurance exchanges and AHPs is negligible, at best.
4.) He insists that Republicans don’t have a better idea
Make no mistake: There are better ideas out there, and many of them have been proposed by conservative Republicans in Congress. FreedomWorks has compiled an excellent list of specific bills with which to replace ObamaCare following full repeal.
Over the years, AEI has done great work, and it holds a well-deserved reputation as one of the most respected conservative think tanks in the country. Frankly, I don’t understand why the organization allowed Kleinke to publish such a ridiculous op-ed under their name. Academic freedom is all well and good, but as Dean Clancy writes:
“AEI could have required Kleinke not to mention his AEI affiliation in the piece, or to add a disclaimer that he speaks for himself, not AEI. It did neither. …This is no minor oversight. It’s a major betrayal in what is arguably the most important domestic policy debate of our generation.”
With barely a month left until Election Day, AEI associating itself with Kleinke’s preposterously misleading “conservative case for ObamaCare” deals a small blow to the repeal coalition. Fortunately, I suspect that this distraction won’t make a difference in November. What will make a difference is the effort put forward by conservative activists across the country committed to changing the national debate and to electing leaders who will support liberty, free markets, and limited government.