A Hobson’s Choice

July 7, 2002

by John K. Bates

There they go again. The Democrats - apparently reaching back to the scare tactics of the 1990s that worked so well - have started telling seniors that the Republicans are out to get them. Specifically, Democrats are up in arms over the prescription drug bill passed by the GOP-controlled House this week on a 221-208 party-line vote. While the Republicans were generous to the tune of $320,000,000 of our tax dollars, the Dems declared it not enough and proceeded to roll out the lingual artillery, especially concerning the fact that the plan relies more on private insurance than the Democrats would like. “Private insurers are working off profit motive,” declared Congressman Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, “not the goodness of their own hearts.”

Goodness. Someone ought to sit down Representative Langevin and explain to him that doing things for the “goodness of the heart,” or the “goodness of the community,” has already been tried and found to be a horrible failure. It was called communism. Furthermore, the concept is entirely subjective: What is the “goodness of the heart” to Mr. Langevin is not the “goodness of the heart” to everyone else. Indeed, it is very easy to sit and pontificate from on high in Washington while the average citizen has to work 40% harder to make up for all the money the pontification is taking away.

It truly is amazing how the political landscape has changed. Prior to 2000, there were two schools of thought concerning a prescription drug benefit. One school, espoused by liberals and Democrats and the media, said that Medicare was too limited because, while it covered drugs administered during a hospital stay, it did not cover drugs bought by prescription. As usual, they did their best to paint this as a “class” issue by noting that “rich” retirees could afford supplemental insurance while others had to pay full price. Even better for the Dems was the fact that the very poor already have prescription drugs paid for by Medicaid, leaving mostly those in the middle class vulnerable to costs. Throw insurance industry and pharmaceutical “greed” - both said to be responsible for driving up drug costs - into the mix and the Democrats had a sure-fire winning issue.

For a while at least, Republicans made a play at fighting the Dems and countering their arguments. But, as usual, they for the most part bungled the issue by making bad arguments while leaving the best points unsaid. Instead of arguing, for example, that the nation could not “afford” a new, expensive benefit (a ploy which boxed them in when budgets went surplus) they might have made the point that the reason some seniors cannot afford prescription drug insurance was that they are taxed too much. An across-the-board tax cut, or at least a tax break for such insurance, would have been an effective counter. Republicans could also have made the point that some 30 states already have added prescription benefits to their budgets, a shining example of how the principle of federalism ostensibly enshrined in the Constitution is supposed to work. Indeed, a tax cut would allow states more freedom to raise taxes as needed to pay for such benefits. And they could have questioned why exactly such a benefit, if needed, was only to be provided by the big, bureaucratic federal government. After all, is not “compassionate conservatism” supposed to imply people take care of themselves when given the tools to do so? Somehow, the government taking from everyone else to provide seniors what their families should be providing them smacks of something closer to old-time liberalism than to any sort of conservative ideal.

Of course, all these points went unsaid, and in 2000 “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush joined Al Gore in promising seniors that the big, benevolent federal government would take care of yet another one of their needs. Alas, today’s debate is not at all about the proper role of the federal government and whether it ought to be in the business of providing drugs to seniors. It is rather about how big, how generous, and how bloated such a benefit ought to be. On this substantive issue of policy, there is now no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. The difference is simply in how big the bag of goodies they dispense will be.

This is but the latest - though it is perhaps the best - example of the Hobson’s choice that bedevils conservatives. How should conservatives react to a Republican President and a Republican House that just created yet another massive and permanent federal entitlement? Should we be upset? Should we decide we are not going to vote in 2002? Should we write our Congressman? Or should we, as many “conservative” politicians and commentators believe, be happy with the results because those results would have been that much worse had we been subjected to a Democrat-drawn plan?

This debate goes well beyond Medicare. We have been told since 1994 that, although government has grown astronomically under the guise of supposed Republicans, it would have grown even more had Richard Gephardt and Ted Kennedy been running things in Washington. The budget would be bigger, taxes higher, and regulations more onerous. Amtrak would be even more in debt, and the cost of a first class stamp would undoubtedly be pushing 50 cents. Thank God for the Republicans, the only true guardians of fiscal responsibility and smaller government.

Perhaps not. This space has catalogued the massive growth of discretionary government spending since 1994; growth which was well above the rate of inflation and well above the historical growth of government during Democrat-controlled years. The simple fact is, despite what the “leaders” at RNC headquarters and on the so-called “EIB Network” like to tell us, Republicans are just as happy raising our taxes and spending our money as Democrats. In some ways, they are worse. With Democrats, at least there is no illusion of smallness. We all know Ted Kennedy wants a large government. Republicans today are the worst sorts of politicians - those who talk a small government game but govern on a big government field.

But the question remains: Are we better off? Consider that in 1993, Bill Clinton controlled a Democratic-dominated Congress; Democrats controlled every committee and every important post. Yet even with this massive advantage, he was unable to get Hillary’s enormous healthcare takeover plan approved. He could not even get it to the floor for a vote. Republicans - at the time much more conservative than they are today - stood up to Mr. Clinton and did what was right. Not just for political advantage, but because it was the right thing to do. They, in essence, showed both courage and principle that they have not shown since.

Sometimes, we have to put our fantasies aside and live in the real world. And so it is with the Republican Party. Until Republicans once again show the fire and the dedication to conservative principles they displayed in 1993, they are duplicitous and they are harmful to the conservative cause. For the prescription drug sellout and many other sellouts of conservative principles, they deserved to be turned out in 2002. That is the proper, and indeed the only, response to the Hobson’s choice that will make a difference.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on CheyenneNetwork.com.

Send the author an E mail at Bates@ConservativeTruth.org.

For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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