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Republicans: Even When They're Right, They're Wrong

President Obama yesterday offered his clearest signal yet that he's open to an individual mandate--in other words, a requirement that every person purchase health insruance.

As you may recall, Obama during the presidential primaries attacked Hillary Clinton for advocating just such a requirment. So I was not at all surprised to hear from the Republican National Committee today, which sent me this e-mail: 


During Primary, Obama Attacked Clinton Over Mandates
During The Democrat Primary, Obama Attacked Clinton's Proposed Employer Mandate For Health Care.

Obama: "Senator Clinton believes the only way to achieve universal health care is to force everybody to purchase it...and my belief is the reason that people don't have it is not because they don't want it, but because they can't afford it." (Michael Luo, "Check Point," The New York Times, 2/22/08)
Obama: "A Mandate Does Not Work Unless You Impose Harsh, Stiff Penalties."  Obama: "When she says she is going to mandate healthcare, what that means is, and her own experts have indicated this, a mandate does not work unless you impose harsh, stiff penalties on those who don't purchase it." (Sen. Barack Obama, Press Conference, 2/23/08)
Now Obama Dropped His Opposition, Is Receptive To Employer Mandates
Yesterday, Obama Said He Was Receptive To An Employer Mandate For Health Care.

"President Obama said Wednesday that he was receptive to Congressional proposals that would require Americans to have health insurance and oblige employers to share in the cost." (Robert Pear, "Obama Open To A Mandate On Health Insurance," The New York Times, 6/3/09)
Obama Is Open To "Making Every American Responsible For Having Health Insurance Coverage." "The president said he was open to proposals for 'shared responsibility -- making every American responsible for having health insurance coverage, and asking that employers share in the cost.'" (Robert Pear, "Obama Open To A Mandate On Health Insurance," The New York Times, 6/3/09)

Two points here.

First... the attack is totally fair game. Yes, Obama prides himself on being open to different ideas; yes, never totally shut the door on a mandate during the campaign. But he--or, at least, his advisers--attacked Clinton pretty mercilessly over the mandate, most memorably with ads like these. Now he's slowly walking that back, undoubtedly for the same reason that Clinton first endorsed it: The mandate is an essential ingredient if you want to get anywhere close to universal coverage, paritcularly if you're trying to stitch together a coalition of industry groups (many of whom, particularly the insurers, consider a mandate essential).

I'm glad that Obama's is doing this and, of course, most of us figured he would end up in this position anyway. He believes in good public policy and, overall, he's shown a lot leadership on health care reform. (More than I had expected!) All the same, he deserves to get some grief over this. 

Second... my lord, how dumb are these Republicans?

Read the release again. In trying to nail Obama on a flip-flop, the mix up their flips and flops. The release suggests that Obama opposed an "employer mandate." Hardly. He always said he favored a requirement that businesses contribute towards the cost of insurance, one way or another. The issue here, again, is an "indivdiual mandate."

I know, it's just one press release. But I'm highlighting it because it happens to be indicative of a broader phenomenon.

Health care has been a Democratic Party focus for years--generations, even. Republicans discover it only when Democrats force it onto the agenda--and, then, only to kill Democratic ideas and/or transform them into Republican ones. As a result, the Democrats just have a much deeper bench on health care--that is, more people, at all levels, who understand the issue. That enables them to act more quickly--and, when they do act, to act more intelligently.

That won't win the health care fight on its own. But it helps.

--Jonathan Cohn