Is Obama a Republican?

| Wed Apr. 27, 2011 1:58 AM EDT

Ezra Klein argues today that Barack Obama is, historically speaking, a moderate Republican. On three big issues, he says, Obama has championed approaches that Republicans themselves supported only a couple of decades ago:

Take health-care reform. The individual mandate was developed by a group of conservative economists in the early ’90s. Mark Pauly, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was one of them. “We were concerned about the specter of single-payer insurance,” he told me recently.

....The story on cap and trade — which conservatives now like to call “cap and tax” — is much the same. Back then, the concern was sulfur dioxide, the culprit behind acid rain. President George H.W. Bush wanted a solution that relied on the market rather than on government regulation. So in the Clean Air Act of 1990, he proposed a plan that would cap sulfur-dioxide emissions but let the market decide how to allocate the permits. That was “more compatible with economic growth than using only the command and control approaches of the past,” he said.

....As for the 1990 budget deal, Bush initially resisted tax increases, but eventually realized they were necessary to get the job done....That deal, incidentally, was roughly half tax increases and half spending cuts. Obama’s budget has far fewer tax increases.

This is a fairly common argument on the left, but I really think it's mistaken. What conservatives want hasn't changed all that much. They want government out of the healthcare business; they want minimal environmental regulation; and they want to keep taxes low. What has changed has been purely tactical. In the early 90s it seemed likely that Democrats could push through single-payer healthcare and a command-and-control solution to acid rain. Republicans felt like they had to have competing solutions, so they offered something a step to the right. Likewise, the 1990 tax bill was merely a compromise that Bush felt pushed into, not conservative dogma of the era. Far from it, in fact: conservatives were opposed to the deal from the start, and Bush himself repudiated it shortly after it was signed into law.

The individual mandate and cap-and-trade may have originally been "Republican" ideas in some technical sense, but they were adopted under duress. They never truly represented things that Republicans supported. The same was true of the Bush tax hike, which even at the time conservatives viewed as the work of an apostate. So it's only natural that they haven't supported any of these things under the Obama adminstration. They never really did, after all, and this time around they felt that flat-out opposition was politically feasible. So that's what we got.

That said, it's true that the GOP has moved considerably to the right over the past couple of decades. Today's crowd wouldn't vote for these things even as a disagreeable but unavoidable compromise. As Joe Klein says:

The Republican party has [...] gone off the deep end on taxes. It has denied the long-term economic and societal benefits of universal health insurance. It has gone into climate change denial...it is hard for any card-carrying Republican to say: I believe that Darwinian evolution is God’s plan.

....A hundred years from now, historians will be having a field day: How did the Republicans go so far astray? Why did it work, from time to time, electorally? Why weren’t the Democrats more effective in stopping them? Why didn’t the society’s major conservative economic stakeholders (outside the uber-reactionary Oil Patch) renounce the sideshow and demand a more reasonable brand of conservatism?

Two words immediately come to mind: Fox News. And two more words: Rush Limbaugh. And two more words: Newt Gingrich. And two more: Frank Luntz.

This is unquestionably true, and it's obviously worth trying to figure out why this rightward shift happened and how it's retained so much public support. But I still don't think it's fair to say that government-mandated health insurance, cap-and-trade, or tax hikes were truly Republican policies 20 years ago. They were merely things they felt compelled to offer as compromises to stave off even worse liberal ideas — the same way that I compromised by supporting Obama's healthcare plan last year. If I get the chance, I'll support full-fledged single-payer healthcare 20 years from now, and it won't be because I've gotten more politically radical. It'll be because I think it's politically feasible.

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