This is what happens when a political party spends four years opposing every policy put forward by the White House.
It suddenly finds that it has indirectly criticised many of its own ideas as well. This is the scenario that the Republican Party finds itself in right now.
The arguments over Obamacare and work disincentives this past week demonstrated this clearly.
Republicans struck on a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that projected that Obamacare would lead to a reduction of 2.5 million full-time equivalent jobs in the workforce. But this isn’t only a feature of Obamacare. The current top conservative health plan, the Coburn-Burr-Hatch plan, which was proposed a few weeks ago, also offers means-tested tax credits to low-income Americans. That means the Coburn-Burr-Hatch plan would also cause a reduction in work, albeit likely less than that of Obamacare.
Many reform conservatives have responded to this charge by pointing out that their preferred health policy would eliminate employer sponsored health insurance altogether and instead offer a tax credit to everyone. Since this tax credit wouldn’t be means-tested, it would eliminate most of the work disincentives that Obamacare creates.
But there is a reason Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Orin Hatch (R-Utah) did not choose a universal credit. It’s because doing so would be extremely disruptive to the health care market. After criticising Obamacare over the past few months for causing insurers to cancel health plans, Republicans cannot just go and propose a plan that would be much more disruptive.
Short-sighted Republican criticism narrowed the policy options for Coburn, Burr and Hatch to choose from. Now, the party is vehemently criticising Obamacare for an effect that the Coburn-Burr-Hatch causes as well.
Imagine this: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has promised to put a health care reform bill on the floor this year. What will that bill look like? If it is similar to the Coburn-Burr-Hatch proposal, it will also disincentivize work as Obamacare does. How can Republicans support that after the past week of non-stop criticism? Have Republicans already disowned the Coburn-Burr-Hatch plan already? Probably not, but they are dangerously close to doing so.
The larger concern here is that many leaders in the Republican Party are making strides proposing positive policy ideas. But it’s a long way towards turning those ideas into pieces of legislation that the whole party can get behind. That will take time, but it also requires that the party not accidentally disown those ideas in the meantime. Instead of reflexively criticising every Democratic policy, Republican policymakers need to look to see if any of those criticisms overlap with their own ideas.
In cases when they do – such as with the work disincentive effects of means-tested tax credits used for the purchase of health insurance – it’s better to hold off on those attacks or make them more nuanced. That’s not easy, but it’s a key part of building a positive policy agenda as the opposition party. Up until recently, Republicans weren’t worried about that part. Now that they are, they need to start rethinking their political attacks in a smarter way.
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