The consequences of a bad bet

THE CONSEQUENCES OF A BAD BET…. Congressional Republicans decided very early on in the process that when it came to health care reform, they would gamble. It’s easy to forget, especially at a time like this, that there was no shortage of not-so-progressive Democrats who were anxious, if not desperate, to strike a compromise with the GOP. If given a choice between a “comprehensive” bill and a “bipartisan” one, much of the Democratic caucus would have gladly embraced the latter.

But Republicans thought they had a better idea: say “no” to everything, including ideas they support and provisions they came up with. There would be no concessions, no compromises, no good-faith negotiations, and no search for common ground. It was time for the Kristol ’93 strategy, and it worked last time, so they decided to give it another shot.

GOP leaders knew there was a risk — if they lost, they’d be stuck with a far more ambitious reform law than a scaled back, bipartisan deal many Dems would have accepted — but they genuinely believed their combination of obstructionism, lies, and obstinacy would prevail. They gambled.

And they lost.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, in a fascinating piece yesterday, described the success of health care reform as the “most crushing legislative defeat” for the right in a half-century. It was, Frum explained, a debacle of conservative Republicans’ own making.

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or — more exactly — with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

Frum concluded with a message to his fellow conservatives: “[I]t’s Waterloo all right: ours.”

This is not to say Republicans will fare poorly in the midterm elections. On the contrary, they’re still likely to do very well. But as Jon Chait noted in December, “The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they’ve been dealt will last for decades.”

Maybe, even now, the bad chess players in the Republican caucus believe they would have made the same moves if they could do it all again. They may very well prefer to be knee-jerk reactionaries with nothing to show for their efforts than constructive lawmakers who met Democrats half-way.

But when the dust settles, here’s hoping some Republicans realize they could have driven a wedge into the Democratic Party and forced the White House to accept a smaller, bipartisan reform package — if only they’d placed a smarter bet.