Sometimes CPAC makes it perfectly clear why Republicans are wandering in the wilderness.
In a seminar on health care held Friday morning, three conservative speakers were not able to articulate a clear alternative to the universal health care plan President Obama has promised to deliver. There was plenty of alarmist rhetoric. "Obama-care," said Michael Tanner, the moderator and a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, is "one of the greatest threats to our individual liberty that we can find." He paraphrased Reagan: you can't socialize medicine without socializing the doctors, and you can't socialize the doctors without socializing the patients. "That is clearly the agenda that Democrats are pursuing," he said.
Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute argued that Obama's plan to introduce a government health care option that will allow every citizen to have health care coverage similar to what is currently enjoyed by members of Congress will "basically shove out private competition from the market." She suggested that universal health care will be a tool for Obama to consolidate power, and a corruption of the "best health care system in the world." Nothing about new ideas.
Thus the job of providing an alternative to universal health care fell to Congressman Michael Burgess, a Texas doctor who went out of his way to (playfully?) call Congressman Pete Stark "history's cruelest monster" because of his support of SCHIP and progressive health care reform. Burgess spent roughly eight minutes talking about "health savings accounts" and "consumer-directed health care," but provided no coherent explanation of the philosophical principles underlying conservatives' opposition to universal health care, and described nothing that listeners could buy into as an alternative. The one concrete idea that he took the time to explain was "portability," which is the idea that people should have the right to keep their health care when they switch jobs or move from one state to another. The problem? Both sides support portability.
(Burgess also said that health care shouldn't be in the hands of Congress because Congress is "inherently transactional," which seemed to mean that it takes money from some and uses it to give benefits to others. What?)
The Republicans have a serious fight on their hands when it comes to health care reform. President Obama will have a fantastic frame to use when presenting his case: he supports universal health care, Republicans oppose it. He will have a stupendously simple explanation of his plan: universal health care means health care for everyone. The Republicans, on the other hand, cannot even explain their alternative when operating on their own turf. There is no need to make concessions to political reality here at CPAC. There is not oppositional messaging coming from Democrats or liberal advocacy groups. Republicans had an easy opportunity to explain what they believe on the health care debate and they wasted it completely. Something makes me think that the cry of "socialized medicine" isn't just political messaging; it hides a vacuum of original policy thinking.