Reaching the point at which ‘real debate isn’t possible’

REACHING THE POINT AT WHICH ‘REAL DEBATE ISN’T POSSIBLE’…. If there’s a “wonk gap” between the left and right, it’s tempting to think conservatives Doug Holtz-Eakin, Joseph Antos, and James Capretta would help fill it. This is, after all, a trio that includes a former director and former assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office, and a former associate director at the Office of Management and Budget.

As Republican officials go, these three should know what they’re talking about. So, when they write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, going after the CBO for its report on the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it’s tempting to think we’ll see some credible, substantive concerns.

We should be so lucky. The op-ed is a complete mess in which Holtz-Eakin, Antos, and Capretta publish obvious falsehoods, apparently in bad faith, about the CBO’s findings. Well outside the realm of opinion, this trio misstates the basics — about deficit reduction, and Medicare, about the doc fix, and about the report itself published by the CBO.

Ezra Klein highlighted the op-ed’s dramatic flaws, and noted that Holtz-Eakin, Antos, and Capretta have “created a separate world for themselves,” in which “policy debate, which relies on at least some shared facts, is impossible.”

If you’re a conservative and you consume conservative media, you now live in a world … so different from the one that Democrats share with the CBO that no argument is really possible. Democrats say the bill reduces the deficit. Republicans say that the bill explodes the deficit. And when the scorekeeper tries to intervene, Republicans take aim at the scorekeeper.

Real debate isn’t possible under those circumstances. But that’s not the only danger here: When you have a scorekeeper respected by all sides, legislation ends up being more fiscally responsible. Fear of a bad score is why Democrats, though they disagreed with the CBO’s modeling and thought their reforms would save more money with less pain, went back to the drawing board and include cost-saving provisions that they didn’t like and that they knew might hurt them in the polls. The end result? A vastly more fiscally responsible bill. The process worked.

But since that put Republicans in a bind — after all, how bad could this legislation be if it fulfilled its goals while paying for itself? — they’ve turned on the process. That’s not only left the two sides arguing from different sets of facts, but undermined the incentives of future congressional majorities to work with the CBO to release fiscally responsible legislation. After all, if no one cares about the score, why kill yourself chasing it?

This makes the debate over health care policy entirely pointless — we’re talking about a Republican Party that still very much approves of “creating their own reality” — while undermining the policymaking process in a rather fundamental way.

Simultaneously, given the intellectual bankruptcy of conservative “wonks,” we’re reminded that the near future looks pretty bleak when it comes to substantive discourse. The wonks are hacks; the pols who rely on the wonks are fools; and the rank-and-file GOP voters who rely on the wonks and pols are played for suckers.