When political pugilists resort to bad faith

WHEN POLITICAL PUGILISTS RESORT TO BAD FAITH…. One of the alleged norms of a civil discourse is not questioning opponents’ motives. One is on solid ground accusing rivals of being wrong, and can even get away with accusing rivals of being dumb, but accusing them of deliberately arguing in bad faith should be done sparingly.

But once in a while, the shoe really does fit.

Today, for example, Jonathan Cohn makes a very compelling case that many of the Republicans arguing against the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act are, in fact, doing so in “bad faith.” His piece is well worth reading, and as regular readers may imagine, I find it persuasive.

Part of the problem for the GOP, of course, is that they fully embraced the individual mandate right up until President Obama agreed with them. Many of the Republicans who are outraged by the policy now are the same Republicans who endorsed, voted for, and even co-sponsored measures with an individual mandate. (Sen. Olympia Snowe voted for a plan with a mandate in committee late 2009, and just months later, said the same policy is unconstitutional.)

It’s possible that all of these Republicans had the same epiphany at the same time, but (a) they’ve never been able to explain the shift; and (b) the more logical explanation is shameless opportunism.

And that’s OK. We’re all adults, and politics, I’ve been reminded more than once, ain’t beanbag. Shameless opportunism is offensive, but it’s part of the game.

But with that in mind, let’s at least be clear about motivations, and appreciate what is plainly true: the mandate’s critics have long since abandoned sincere, good-faith arguments. I’ve followed politics long enough to know this is part of the process, but let’s not pretend sincerity exists where it does not.

Ezra Klein had a terrific item on this yesterday, explaining, “Whatever the legal argument about the individual mandate is about, it’s not, as some of its detractors would have it, a question of liberty.”

When it comes to the legislation itself, the key question actually comes down to semantics. It’s broadly agreed that tax breaks are constitutional. The individual mandate could’ve been called the “personal responsibility tax.” If you can show the IRS proof of insurance coverage, you then get a “personal responsibility tax credit” for exactly the same amount. This implies that what makes the mandate unconstitutional in the eyes of some conservatives is its wording…. Despite the overheated rhetoric that’s been tossed around in this debate, I don’t believe our forefathers risked their lives to make sure the word “penalty” was eschewed in favor of the word “tax.” This is not a country built upon semantics. […]

The principle conservatives are fighting for is that they don’t like the Affordable Care Act. And having failed to win that fight in Congress, they’ve moved it to the courts in the hopes that their allies on the bench will accomplish what their members in the Senate couldn’t. That’s fair enough, of course. But they didn’t see the individual mandate as a question of liberty or constitutionality until Democrats passed it into law in a bill Republicans opposed, and they have no interest in changing its name to the “personal responsibility tax,” nor would they be mollified if it was called the “personal responsibility tax.” The hope here is that they’ll get the bill overturned on a technicality. And perhaps they will. But no one should be confused by what’s going on.

That’s excellent advice.