Commentary: Here's how the GOP plans to defeat health care reform

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

Something as sweeping as health care reform, we're being told, should have bipartisan support. The creation of the interstate highway system did. And the Civil Rights Act. Ditto the Social Security Act of 1935.

Well, no kidding. Of course health care reform should have bipartisan support — just as so many of our Republican congressmen are insisting. As they work feverishly to keep any trace of bipartisanship from seeping into the vote counts.

"A basic decision was made by the Republican leadership that if you defeat a major initiative like health reform, it could rebound to the benefit of the minority party," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal consumer group that pushes for health care reform.

That's the strategy Republicans used to jettison Bill Clinton's health care reform effort.

In a memo that has become required reading for anyone seeking to understand the politics underlying health care, GOP strategist William Kristol warned Republican leaders in 1993 that Clinton's plan was a "serious political threat" to the party.

"It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government," Kristol wrote.

He suggested that Republicans "allay public concerns about health security" by "pursuing the short list of reforms for which there is already a national consensus."

That's pretty much what U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri did recently. Under fire for not producing much in the way of solutions while heading up the GOP Health Care Solutions Group, he trucked out 10 bills proposing boilerplate Republican measures like caps on malpractice awards.

House Minority Leader John Boehner proposed many of the same measures in a bill described as the GOP alternative to "Obamacare." Unfortunately for Republicans, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Boehner's "solutions" would do nothing to reduce the number of uninsured Americans, and would be much less effective at reducing the deficit than the Democratic proposal.

Some senators, believing health care legislation in some form is inevitable, are now looking to make their imprint on a bill. Will their leadership allow it? Probably not without a fight. Senate GOP leaders frowned upon talks within the Senate Finance Committee intended to produce a bipartisan bill.

"I don't think you could underestimate how much pressure was placed (on some of the senators) not to continue those conversations," Pollack said.

Meanwhile, House Republicans reportedly are planning to participate in as many "town hall" type gatherings as possible over the next three weeks, seeking to bring the tea party kettle back to a full boil.

In a lengthy piece published in the Washington Monthly magazine in 1994, writer Jon Meacham, now editor of Newsweek, described Kristol's plan for deep-sixing health care reform and wrote, "That it worked is a classic example of how Republicans buy off the vast middle class with appealing polemics and short-term fixes."

Fifteen years later, the GOP has refined the art of polemics. Short-term fixes have resulted in an even more costly and less efficient health care system. We spend $2 trillion a year on health care, and achieve poorer results than nations that do a better job of controlling costs.

We do need comprehensive health care reform, and the best vehicle for achieving that is the bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee.

How crafty of Republicans to now cite lack of bipartisanship as a fatal flaw in President Obama's health care reform effort, when that's been their plan from the outset.