The dust has now begun to settle after the firestorm that was the Waterloo column, an argument that unleashed a tumultuous, passionate, and sometimes nasty debate over political strategy within the GOP. The debate was a necessary one, and did much in the way of illuminating the need for more strategic depth within the party. However, it also often degenerated into hyperbole, and worse, personal attacks that clouded the debate and stunted the opportunities for learning and growth that are so crucial to a defeated entity.
As much of the debate focused feverishly on the immediate implications of the healthcare fallout, the promises to repeal and replace, the threats of zero future GOP cooperation, and the rallying cries to the 2010 midterms, little attention was paid to the long-term implications of the bill’s passage. It is now clear that the bill cannot possibly (as a fact of math) be repealed before 2013 at the earliest, and more likely 2017, if it can be repealed at all (which it likely cannot be). Furthermore, in that interim period the bill will have begun to be implemented. This will change the game completely.
Why? Because individual policy preferences do not only inform policy, policy informs individual preferences. People build their lives around policy expectations, interest groups are created, income patterns change, and more simply, people get used to it. As a graduate student at George Washington University, I come across many studies related to how individual preferences are affected by political and policy regimes. One in particular caught my eye.
The title of the 2007 study is Good-Bye Lenin (Or Not?) The Effect of Communism on People’s Preferences. Let me first say that no, I am not comparing the passage of Obama’s healthcare plan in any way to communism in East Germany, however, the study offers interesting insights into how people adjust to changes in policy regimes. The finding was that, far from turning sharply against heavy state involvement in social well-being, the experience of East Germans under communism actually increased their preference for state intervention significantly during the 45-year existence of the communist regime. In 1997, seven years after reunification, East Germans were about fifteen percent more likely to favor a strong state than West Germans. By 2002, that gap had narrowed by about four and a half percent. The study estimated that if that trend continued at a steady pace Germans would once again share a homogenous opinion regarding a strong state presence within 20 to 40 years of reunification. That’s a cycle lasting up to 85 years, from separation to reunification, to re-assimilation. The power of this study is that it shows that a homogenous society experienced sharp divisions in political preferences not due to geographical, income, or other factors, but to experiences under different regimes.
Although we are not in any danger at all of enduring a communist dictatorship, the study sheds insight on the possible long-term implications of the idea that the final version of the bill included a more central role for the government in healthcare than it could have. This means that while the GOP is waiting for sufficient congressional representation to re-reform healthcare the pendulum of individual preferences will swing farther to the left than it otherwise would have, and it will take longer to push it back. This, occurring while the United States is careening headlong into a fiscal crisis so severe that it could change the face of the nation, and perhaps of globalization as well.
Should the Waterloo thesis prove correct, then whatever short term gains the GOP may derive from healthcare in 2010 may be negated by the long-term cost to conservative priorities in the future. After the New Deal was struck, it took 40 years for the process of deregulation to begin under Carter, and accelerate under Reagan. The idea that a similar experience could be avoided, at the cost, possibly, of short-term political gain is a crucial thing to consider. Now that tempers have eased, it’s time to soberly re-assess the game plan.