Entry from March 24, 2010

Nobody really knows at this point whether or not David Frum was right to have written that the passage of Obamacare on Sunday meant “conservatives and Republicans today suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s.” My immediate reaction, like that of most conservatives, was to think the contention preposterous. Is not the bill, now law, massively unpopular with the American people? Are not the Democrats headed for a “Waterloo” (as Mr Frum calls the Republican “disaster”) of their own in November? Is it not now a foregone conclusion that Barack Obama is a one-term president who will be turfed out of office in 2012 and replaced by a conservative Republican for whom the first order of business will be to repeal this monstrosity? The questions answer themselves: don’t be so sure.

I think that Tunku Varadarajan in The Daily Beast goes too far in implying bad faith on the part of Mr Frum who, he says, has “dedicated himself to being what I call a “polite-company conservative” (or PCC), much like David Brooks and Sam Tanenhaus at the New York Times (where the precocious Ross Douthat is shaping up to be a baby version of the species).”

A PCC is a conservative who yearns for the goodwill of the liberal elite in the media and in the Beltway — who wishes, always, to have their ear, to be at their dinner parties, to be comforted by a sense that liberal interlocutors believe that they are not like other conservatives, with their intolerance and boorishness, their shrillness and their talk radio. The PCC, in fact, distinguishes himself from other conservatives not so much ideologically — though there is an element of that — as aesthetically.

But if such an uncharitable, not to say mean-spirited assumption is unnecessary to explain Mr Frum’s view that the Republicans could have taken part ownership of Obamacare by making deals when the Democrats were desperate for votes, that doesn’t mean he’s right. On that point, I agree with Mr Varadarajan that any token concessions the more progressive Republicans might have won in exchange for their votes would have done the party no good and might have done it harm. Nor do I think that their standing so firmly against reform was owing to talk radio demagogues.

On the larger and more serious point about the political fallout, however, Mr Frum’s argument gets some powerful support from Daniel Finkelstein in today’s Times of London. As I have mentioned before in this space, Mr Finkelstein is a very bright former political operative on behalf of the British Conservative party who believes that Americans were as opposed to Obamacare as Britons are powerfully attached to their own version of socialized medicine, the single-payer National Health Service for the same reason. It is that people’s fear of losing something that they have is much more powerful than their hope of getting something that they don’t have. Before, that principle of what he calls “anchoring and loss aversion”: was working for the G.O.P. side. Now it will be working for the Democrats. The “reforms,” though unpopular in prospect are, now that they are in place, likely prove to be permanent and impossible to repeal. “With Obamacare, a proposal to change the status quo has become the status quo. In future debates on healthcare people will anchor themselves to the new law and compare all suggested changes to it. And they are likely to resist any that threaten a loss to their position.”

He then goes on to show how the same principle has been at work in British politics in recent years:

Few politicians understand how this works as well as Gordon Brown. And on becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, he fashioned a political weapon that takes brutal advantage of these rules of social psychology — the spending review. In 1998 Mr Brown announced his spending plans not simply for the coming year, but for the coming three years. And he pledged that he would repeat the exercise every two years, mapping out a course for the next three-year period. This was good public policy, one of his best innovations. It allowed departments to plan and the Treasury to hold them to account. But it was also good, even lethal, politics. In 2000 and 2004 the review allowed Mr Brown to establish spending plans for a period stretching halfway into the next Parliament. It meant that in the 2001 and 2005 elections, Labour policy was the anchor, and the Tory proposals could be seen as risky change with voters’ natural loss aversion acting to Labour’s advantage. Voters reacted exactly as the behavioural economists would expect to Tory proposals. They found the threatened loss of spending more worrying than they found it enticing to be offered an equal amount in tax reductions. The anchor worked in a second way. Tory proposals, made in opposition, seemed callow and ill-thought through compared with the solid government plans, which must have something going for them because they were, well, government plans.

That all sounds pretty persuasive — until you remember that, this time around, the Tories are probably going to give Labour a good thumping. At least it was generally assumed that they were until a week or two ago when the polls showed signs of closing. I still think they will, but that’s another thing about which only time will tell.

Tomorrow: one reason for thinking that voters may not feel so loss-averse about reform as Messrs. Frum and Finkelstein fear.

Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts