In 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, which gave disabled people more freedom to move about society. In 1996, Republicans passed and Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform law that tied benefits to work requirements so that recipients would develop the skills they need to succeed in the labor force. In 2003, Republicans passed a law giving Americans a new prescription drug benefit, which used market mechanisms to give them more control over how to use it.
These legislative accomplishments were about using government in positive ways to widen people’s options. They aimed at many of the same goals as Democrats — broader health coverage, lower poverty rates — but relied on less top-down mechanisms to get there.
Over the past few decades Republicans cast off the freedom-as-capacity tendency. They became, exclusively, the party of freedom as detachment. They became the Get Government Off My Back Party, the Leave Us Alone Coalition, the Drain the Swamp Party, the Don’t Tread on Me Party.
Philosophically you can embrace or detest this shift, but one thing is indisputable: It has been a legislative disaster. The Republican Party has not been able to pass a single important piece of domestic legislation under this philosophic rubric. Despite all the screaming and campaigns, all the government shutdown fiascos, the G.O.P. hasn’t been able to eliminate a single important program or reform a single important entitlement or agency.
Today, the G.O.P. is flirting with its most humiliating failure, the failure to pass a health reform bill, even though the party controls all the levers of power. Worse, Republicans have managed to destroy any semblance of a normal legislative process along the way.
There are many reasons Republicans have been failing as a governing party, but the primary one is intellectual. The freedom-as-detachment philosophy is a negative philosophy. It is about cutting back, not building.
A party operating under this philosophy is not going to spawn creative thinkers who come up with positive new ideas for how to help people. It’s not going to nurture policy entrepreneurs. It’s not going to respect ideas, period. This is not a party that’s going to produce a lot of modern-day versions of Jack Kemp.
Second, Republican voters may respond to the freedom-as-detachment rhetoric during campaigns. It feels satisfying to say that everything would be fine if only those stuck-up elites in Washington got out of the way. But operationally, most Republicans support freedom-as-capacity legislation.
If you’re a regular American, the main threat to your freedom is illness, family breakdown, social decay, technological disruption and globalization. If you’re being buffeted by massive forces beyond your control, you don’t want legislation that says: Guess what? You’re on your own!
The Republicans could have come up with a health bill that helps people cope with illness and nurtures their capacities, a bill that offers catastrophic care to the millions of American left out of Obamacare, or health savings accounts to encourage preventive care. Republicans could have been honest with the American people and said, “We’re proposing a bill that preserves Obamacare and tries to make it sustainable.” They could have touted some of the small reforms that are in fact buried in the Senate bill.
But this is the Drain the Swamp Party. The Republican centerpiece is: “We’re going to cut your Medicaid.”
So now we have a health care bill that everybody hates. It has a 17 percent approval rating. It has no sponsors, no hearings, no champions and no advocates. As usual, Republican legislators have got themselves into a position where they have to vote for a bill they all despise. And if you think G.O.P. dysfunction is bad now, wait until we get to the debt ceiling wrangle, the budget fight and the tax reform crackup.
Sure, Donald Trump is a boob, but that doesn’t explain why Republicans can’t govern from Capitol Hill. The answer is that we’re living at a time when the prospects for the middle class are in sharp decline. And Republicans offer nothing but negativity, detachment, absence and an ax.
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