The Fallacy of Bipartisanship

RightWatch: If the health care law is overturned, it will be proof that compromise wasn't the answer.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) with President Obama (Saul Loeb/AFP)

If, as most legal observers seem to expect, the Supreme Court in June overturns the most important provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it will be a major setback for President Barack Obama at a crucial time in his re-election campaign. No matter how some overly optimistic commentators try to spin it otherwise, losing the signature legislative achievement of what Obama hopes will be only his first term would be a huge defeat both for his policies and for his image. 

It would raise troubling questions about Obama's approach to governing, especially during his first two years in office, when he seemed to place so much value on trying to reach bipartisan compromises with his Republican opponents that his liberal supporters felt he was turning his back on them. He was so eager to find common ground with the GOP that he gave up his own ideas and adopted theirs instead.

That was really dumb. Obama's relentless pursuit of agreement with increasingly partisan conservative Republicans produced inferior policies. On top of that, Republicans have proved that they simply cannot be trusted to participate in building a consensus, even if it is based on their own ideas.

The notion of "loyal opposition," so essential to the success of a democratic system, is anathema to Obama's enemies. As the battle for his second term heats up, Obama has become more aggressive. He seems finally to have learned that there is just no dealing with these people.

It was a costly lesson. For Republicans, defeating him at every turn was the highest priority, far more important than offering realistic solutions to the plethora of catastrophic problems that he inherited from the previous administration. Radio blabbermouth Rush Limbaugh repeatedly declared his "hope that Obama fails." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell vowed that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Yet Obama, in ways that now seem naive, tried his best to find common ground.

There is no clearer example of this than his evolving position on health care. Obama started out as a critic of an individual mandate forcing everybody to buy health insurance. Instead he outlined a universal health care plan that would have given everyone access to coverage similar to what Congress receives, with subsidies for those in lower-income brackets. He also would have created a national health care insurance exchange as an option for those who wanted private health insurance. The idea was to make obtaining a policy so attractive that there would be no need to force people to buy one. 

But within a few months after being sworn in, Obama realized that his ambitious plan had no chance of overcoming opposition from Republicans and conservative Democrats. So in a flip-flop worthy of Mitt Romney, his likely opponent this fall, he became a convert to the mandate.


Forcing healthy young people to buy insurance was essential to making the system work. Once the notion of a mandatory, government-controlled single-payer system similar to Medicare was abandoned, the mandate was the only way to extend private health insurance coverage to those with pre-existing conditions without driving costs through the roof.

Mind you, the mandate was originally a Republican Big Idea, cooked up by conservative policy wonks at places like the Heritage Foundation as a free market alternative to the proposal put forth by then-first lady Hillary Clinton. It had big-time Republican support. Obama's calculation appeared to be that he could co-opt some GOP lawmakers into supporting the bill by adopting a Republican approach.