Worth Reading #3: David Frum vs. the Hax of Sol III: Wall Street Journal Edition (Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? for March 27, 2010)
The Wall Street Journal delivers a stinging editorial this morning, accusing me of selling myself for MSM gold. On the other hand, they also credit me as the main author of Beltway conventional wisdom, so I do have that going for me.
In Washington, political defeats always produce finger-pointing, so the conventional wisdom has suddenly turned on a dime and decided that Republicans were wrong to have opposed ObamaCare. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was especially taken yesterday with blogger and Bush speechwriter David Frum’s argument that if only Republicans had negotiated with Democrats, they could have somehow made the bill less awful than it is. Mr. Frum now makes his living as the media’s go-to basher of fellow Republicans, which is a stock Beltway role. But he’s peddling bad revisionist history that would have been even worse politics.
I’ll get to the personal stuff at the end of this post. Let’s begin with the historical claim. Who is the revisionist? According to the Wall Street Journal,
In the House, Republicans were frozen out from the start. Three Chairmen—Charlie Rangel, Henry Waxman and George Miller—holed up last spring to write the most liberal bill they could get through the House. Republicans were told that unless they embraced the “public option,” there was nothing to discuss. As for the White House, House GOP leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor in May sent a letter to President Obama “respectfully” requesting a meeting to discuss ideas. The White House didn’t respond. Mr. Obama’s first deadline for House passage was July, and only after public opinion turned against the bill did he begin to engage Republican ideas. Yet in his September address to Congress attempting to revive his bill, he made no concession save pilot projects for tort reform. In the Senate, a group of Republicans did negotiate with Finance Chairman Max Baucus for months, even as Senators Chris Dodd and Ted Kennedy were crafting a bill that mirrored the liberal House product. GOP Senators Chuck Grassley, Olympia Snowe and Orrin Hatch are hardly strangers to working with Democrats. In 2007, they helped Mr. Baucus expand the children’s insurance program over President Bush’s opposition. Senate liberals kept tugging Mr. Baucus to the left, however, and eventually the White House ordered him to call off negotiations. Senator Snowe still voted for the Finance Committee bill, though even she fell away on the floor as Majority Leader Harry Reid insisted on pushing the public option and tried, as Ms. Snowe put it, to “ram it” and “jam it” through the Senate. In the end, Republicans couldn’t as a matter of principle support even 50% of a bill that was such a huge and reckless expansion of government. If they had, they would have rightly lost the support of their own most loyal supporters. In the end, too, the bill was so unpopular—59% opposed in a Sunday CNN survey—that 34 House Democrats voted no and Mr. Reid is resorting to reconciliation to get the “fixes” of more taxes and spending through the Senate.
As I stressed in my “Waterloo” post, I don’t know whether a deal could have been done in the Senate Finance Committee. Maybe it was hopeless from the get-go. On the other hand, as the Journal itself says: “[A] group of Republicans did negotiate with Finance Chairman Max Baucus for months …” It would be equally accurate to say that Finance Chairman Max Baucus negotiated with Republicans for months. Months! Doesn’t that suggest something to you? Gigot? Henninger? McGurn? Anybody? Anybody? Baucus, a moderate Democrat (the National Journal ranked him the 45th most liberal senator in 2009) representing red-state Montana, badly wanted bipartisan cover. Badly enough? Again, as I said, I don’t know. But the claim that Republicans pressed as hard as they could to find out is simply incredible. And if they HAD pressed, who would have fired at them more fiercely than the WSJ itself?
The Journal approved the plan to bet everything defeating Obamacare rather than endorse what it contemptuously called, “Baucus lite.” As a tactic for increasing Republican seats in Congress, that plan might have worked. But it represented a huge gamble: If Republicans failed to stop the Obama plan, their refusal to do business would yield a much worse bill than might otherwise have been obtained. Which is exactly what has happened. To repeat: if you go for all the marbles, you had better win. We lost.
Of course the strategy might still “work”: as the Journal noted, the Obama plan has been rendered more unpopular than it might otherwise have been. Some of the Republican congressional gains expected in 2010 might well be credited to the anti-Obamacare campaign. But what kind of argument is this for the Wall Street Journal to make? I can understand why John Boehner might say, “I don’t really care what the health care bill ultimately looks like – the important thing is to regain a GOP majority.” But the Journal? Aren’t they supposed to be about policy and ideas rather than committee chairmanships?
I do want to answer, finally, the Journal’s ugly personal remark. I worked on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page for three years. Through much of that time, one of my duties was to see into print the column written by Paul Gigot, now the paper’s editor. We know each other pretty well. Paul cannot seriously believe that my views are for sale. But if he did believe it, surely he’d credit me with the acuity to know where the highest price is paid: and that it’s not where I’ve raised my flag.