By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Bush speechwriter: A “disaster” for Republicans

David Frum

Later this week I’ll be writing more about the historic health-care bill passed by the House on Sunday night. For now, though, a few semi-connected observations.

1. If you read nothing else on the politics of health-care reform, you must read this blog post by David Frum, a Republican strategist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush. Frum doesn’t like the bill; he thinks it’s too expensive and will harm businesses. But he is withering in his criticism of the Republican leadership for its take-no-prisoners approach to legislation that is, he asserts, moderate at its core and based on Republican ideas.

“Conservatives and Republicans today suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s,” he begins. “It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the disaster.” He continues:

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo — just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.

Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton’s 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.

Every line is quotable, so by all means read the whole thing. But he is especially strong on the strategic error Republicans made in following the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, noting that not only do they want Democrats to fail, but, fundamentally, they want Republicans to fail, too. Why? It’s good for business.

2. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman today connects the dots between opposition to health-care reform and race. It’s not hard: All he has to do is quote former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who recently said passage would be as harmful to Democrats as civil-rights legislation was in the 1960s. [See correction below.]

Gingrich’s clear message was that white opposition to racial justice was good for the Republican Party, and happy days are here again. And Krugman offers a few other choice examples as well.

The racial subtext to health-care reform has been right below the surface all along. Let’s not forget that South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson, who bellowed “You lie!” at President Obama last September, has a long and foul history of involvement in Confederate causes. This weekend, the tea-party protesters included someone holding up a racially charged poster of Obama as a voodoo doctor (I’ve lost track of where I found it, but if you’ve got a link, send it along), and of some flinging the N-word at Congressman John Lewis, a legendary civil-rights leader. (Homophobic slurs were directed at Congressman Barney Frank as well.)

You can’t even bring this stuff up without being criticized for characterizing a group based on the actions of a few, and I do understand that argument. But if anyone on the scene tried to stop or shout down these knuckle-draggers, their efforts have gone unrecorded.

3. As the media play their favorite parlor game of picking winners and losers, they ought to consider that the biggest loser of all might prove to be Congressman Steve Lynch of South Boston.

Lynch, as we know, announced his opposition to the Senate bill last week. No surprise there — a lot of House Democrats didn’t like it, which is why they came up with the complex strategy of approving the Senate bill, then approving a set of amendments to send back to the Senate.

But Lynch backed himself into a corner with strong language that made it almost impossible for him to shift. By Sunday, the emotional momentum had clearly turned, and Lynch had nowhere to go. He wound up being one of just two House members to vote against the Senate bill and for the amendments — a move that may have put him on the “right” side both times, but that was transparently craven. (So why did the “yes” tally rise by just one, from 219 to 220? Believe it or not, someone voted “yes” on the Senate bill and “no” on the amendments. Go figure.)

The talk today is whether a progressive Democrat might challenge Lynch in the primary. That’s happened before without much effect. This time, though, Lynch could face an opponent who can raise money from the netroots, and without his erstwhile friends in organized labor to drag him over the finish line.

Sounded like a good idea at the time, eh, Congressman?

Correction: Krugman relied on a Washington Post story, and the Post has now published a correction. Gingrich says he was referring to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social programs and the Vietnam War, not to civil-rights legislation.

Photo of David Frum via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. BP Myers

    While talking with an African-American professor this morning, Joe Scarborough lampooned those who compare this bill to the Civil Rights Act, specifically singling out Congressman John Lewis for once comparing Newt Gingrich to Bull Conner. Krugman indeed lays out why the comparison may be more apt than it appears on the surface.

    Amusing too to listen to the howls of right-wing talk radio. Glenn Beck said this morning: “We will kick [progressives] ass down the street!” This from a man who travels with a bodyguard.

    Curious to see the “party of individual responsibility” rail against a bill that mandates individual responsibility.

    I wonder too if claims that “this bill provides federal funding of abortions!” will become the Republican rallying cry. I can see them now, debating banking regulatory reform: “This bill provides federal funding of abortions!”

    At any rate, I’m no fan of this bill and would have voted against it. But give the Democrats all the credit in the world, especially Nancy Pelosi, who is one tough broad.

  2. ben starr

    It would appear that Dems were in trouble this november prior to the events of this past weekend and, in fact, rather than sealing their fate (a faulty cliche, i know) this turnaround was their best hope to improve their chances.

  3. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    So we have two competing narratives — either the bill’s supporters are socialists or its opponents are racists. Dan, at this point I think you and Glen Beck just need to “hug it out.” 😉

  4. PE Stack

    Lynch will win by an even bigger majority than he has in the past. This is a case of losing the battle but winning the war. The Scott Brown voters will hold Lynch in high regard for his stance on this. Massachusetts will continue to move to the right in the next elections.

  5. BP Myers

    @Ben: Doesn’t have to be either or. (:>)

    @Dan: Saw your recent tweet where the “baby killer” shouter was identified as a right-wing birther congressman.

    Funny, this morning (before the identity was known) right-wing radio yacker Mike Gallagher was positing that both baby killer shouter and n-word shouter were probably Democratic plants.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP and @Ben: That’s a pretty clunky item I wrote. Obviously I believe it’s possible oppose health-care reform without being a racist. But it is striking how many opponents of reform are racists — or, like Newt Gingrich, licking their chops at the prospect of getting votes from racists.

  6. Johanna Bleichert

    While I feel bad for racist slurs yelled at Representatives André Carson and John Lewis, but this post really ought to mention poor Representative Emanuel Cleaver II and the protester arrested for spitting on him.

  7. L.K. Collins

    Once again, Dan, your visceral dislike of people who think differently from you is on display.

    Yes, your bit was rather clunky and rather revealing.

    While I could never support the courting of a racist vote, a vote is a vote, and all ballots need to be counted. Even the bigoted racists’ and the “not-out-of-my-wallet” types..

    Or are you advocating passing a constitutional amendment to deny them the vote?

  8. Mary DeChillo

    The footage of the Republican congressmen waving at the Tea Partiers from the balcony of the Capitol should go far to dispel any debate as to whether or not the “Tea Baggers” and Republicans are, indeed, one in the same. Attempts by Republicans to distance themselves from those spitting at and throwing racial and gay epithets did not happen to my knowledge. We will continue to see the signs (see today’s Globe) bearing Hitler likenesses, claims of “socialism” and other vitriolic language) throughout the country as the legislation becomes law.

    Local Republicans need to stand up for decency and decry what the Republican Party is doing. They need to challenge the teapartiers and not hide behind First Amendment claims about political discourse when people are being spit on and called unthinkable racist and homophobic names. It is easy to speak about “our children and grandchildren” being adversily affected by the effects of the Health Care Legislation. I think greater damage to our country and the next generation occurs when members of Congress show disrespect inside the House chamber or when a movement like the Tea Party is given the blessing of the Republican party.

  9. L.K. Collins

    I disagree Ms. DeChillo.

    The greater damage to our country and the next generation are the Senators and Representatives who forget that they are representing the people.

    Happens all too often.

    And it is neither and exclusively Republican or Democratic problem.

    As for the “Teabaggers”, well, I bet there are any number of registered Democrats and Libertarians in their midst.

    Your generalization is a tad too general to be realistic.

  10. Glen Bergendahl

    The next time David Frum is a “must-read” will be the first. Perhaps I missed something critical, but this whole debate has been between liberals and uber liberals. It took bribes and kickbacks for the Senate to pass this monstrosity when democrats had a super majority. Same deal in the House – republicans weren’t needed in order to pass this. If this is such great legislation, why were democrats fighting among themselves all of this time?

    Glad Frum made you feel good Dan. But I’m sure you also read the article co-written by Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen – that article did not make you feel so good now did it?

  11. Mike Benedict

    @LK: The sole distinction between Republicans, Libertarians and Tea-Baggers is spelling.

  12. Steve Stein

    It might be instructive to read Frum’s companion column “How GOP can rebound from its ‘Waterloo'”. His prescription:
    1. tax cuts for the rich
    2. quit defending employer-based healthcare
    3. reduce regulations on insurance companies
    4. tax cuts for business

    1,3 and 4 seem like same-old same-old Republican dogma (and we found out how well that worked for 8 years, didn’t we?).

    Number 2, however, is something I wish someone had raised during the HCR debate. In fact, this is something Republicans argued AGAINST. Why Frum thinks a flip-flop on this would be good for Republicans is a mystery to me.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: I’m pretty sure McCain talked about ending employer-based insurance during the 2008 campaign. Those were the days.

  13. Steve Stein

    Interesting note about the correction. Whether the Post’s quote of Gingrich was correct or not, I think the original report was historically correct – it was Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation (and not the Great Society programs) that drove southern Democrats from the party.

  14. BP Myers

    @Dan: Not sure he talked about ending it, but he certainly talked about taxing it as income, which in retrospect (after this monstrosity of a bill) certainly makes sense.

    Not taxing employee’s health care benefits is akin to not taxing them for their vacation days. Just doesn’t make sense.

    On a similar subject, having worked in corporations where folks compete to compile frequent flyer miles, I’ve always wondered why: a) companies allow their employees to receive this benefit for which they pay, and b) why employees aren’t taxed for it.

    @Mike: I’m a Republican. Comments like that just make you appear just as loony as the teabaggers.

  15. Laurence Kranich

    I would be 100% in favor of ending employer-based health insurance IF the employees got to keep the employer subsidy in the form of larger paychecks. It’s only fair – employees would be expected to use that money to buy their own healthcare in the future.

    But how many corporations could be expected to do the right thing? I’m sure many of them would claim the “savings”, and I can hear the free-market folks cheering them on.

  16. BP Myers

    @Laurence: Recall that employer-based health insurance itself was not a government mandate, but a market-driven phenomenon. During World War II, when labor was hard to find, employers began offering this relatively cheap benefit as a way to distinguish themselves from their competition and to entice employees to work for them.

    Their is no reason to believe that, if employers no longer offered health insurance, that these savings wouldn’t be used to offer higher salaries as a mechanism to entice people to come to work for them. Perhaps not all the savings would go for this purpose, but I suspect much of it would.

  17. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    The only people I’ve seen comparing Obama to Hitler are Democrats! La Rouchies are currently petitioning for a Democrat to run against Barney Frank in the primary.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ben: Please study up on Glenn Beck, OK?

  18. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    Dan: Yes, I’m aware that Glen Beck has played “connect-the-dots” with Obama and every major tyrant in history. I’m just talking about what I’ve observed here in MA politics.

    I’ve actually met some of Glen Beck’s “9-12” followers. All I can say is that they’re not the ones hectoring me about impeaching Obama.

  19. Mike Benedict

    Has Rush left the country yet? Or is that just another bit of hypocrisy* from Al Franken’s favority “Big Fat Idiot?”

    *Illegal drug use, etc.

  20. Tom Underwood

    “The only people I’ve seen comparing Obama to Hitler are Democrats!”

    Where are you getting this from?!?

  21. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    Tom: Personal experience – I recently saw them in downtown New Bedford and a Fall River Stop and Shop. I heard they were removed by Police from the Stop and Shop in Dartmouth. They made national news last summer at Barney Frank’s town hall meeting in Dartmouth, where they compared Obama to Hitler and displayed signs of Obama with a Hitler mustache. I saw the same signs in downtown New Bedford. They are trying to get people to sign nomination papers for Rachel Brown “to impeach Obama.” I might add that these are Democratic Primary nomination papers that Republicans are prohibited from signing. Don’t get me wrong, there are wacky Republicans too – but Hudak’s got nothing on the Democrats we have down here.

    Here’s something about Rachel Brown’s campaign:

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ben: LaRouchies are not Democrats, although LaRouche has run for president on the Democratic line. For that matter, Ron Paul isn’t really a Republican, though he has found it convenient to identify himself as such.

  22. George Williams

    It is understanding that employer based health insurance came about due to wage controls during WW II. Employers could not increase wages so perks were used to get around the wage controls.

  23. Ben Rivard-Rapoza

    Dan: La Rouchies always run as Democrats. They’re not really Democrats? Ok, whatever you say. My point is just that it’s absurd to blame Republicans for the activities of people who clearly identify themselves as Democrats.

  24. Michael Pahre

    Why did Lynch vote the way he did? He just wrote a column spelling it out.

    Answer: tax on “Cadillac plans.”

    Actually, he gave three reasons why he voted in 2009 in favor of HCR (the House bill), and then Sunday against the Senate bill, and then Sunday in favor of the reconcilation fixes to the Senate bill: 1. Senate bill didn’t have public option, while House bill did. 2. Senate bill keeps the antitrust exemption for health insurance providers, while House bill would strip it. 3. Senate bill’s tax on Cadillac plans, while House bill’s tax on the wealthy.

    Basically: the Senate bill was not liberal enough (#1 and #2) and was too anti-union (#3) for Lynch’s tastes.

    Peculiarly enough, #1 and #2 aren’t in the reconcilation bill, either, a point that he avoided mentioning in his column. #2 is the subject of separate legislation that has cleared the House and is now under consideration in the Senate.

    So why did he vote for the reconcilation bill fixes? All that’s left is #3: a pro-union stance against the tax on Cadillac plans.

    Lynch is trying to position himself on the left and on the side of unions, even though he is often viewed as a moderate and the unions were mad at him last September. That’ll make challenging him from the left more complicated.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: The only way a progressive could beat Lynch is if the netroots mobilized and raised millions of dollars. Given the way Lynch has succeeded in muddying the waters, that’s not likely to happen.

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