Vote for Obama–and gridlock

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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Late last year, Ann Coulter wrote a seemingly reductionist column, supporting Romney because of his stands on two issues: 1) Obamacare and 2) illegal immigration. Her argument was that Obamacare is irreversible, if alllowed to stand–as is illegal immigration, if it’s legalized through an amnesty.

Taxes can be raised and lowered. Regulations can be removed (though they rarely are). Attorneys general and Cabinet members can be fired. Laws can be repealed. Even Supreme Court justices eventually die.

I think Coulter’s strange take is correct–those are the two biggest domestic  issues at stake in the election.** The only problem is that a) I support Obamacare and b) think Mitt Romney is perversely more likely than Barack Obama to actually produce a misguided immigrant amnesty (i.e. before securing the borders). I’ll be voting for Obama, even if it means enduring annoying “attaboys” from my Democratic friends and relatives.

[Insert cranky to- be-sure graf here]: I don’t really like Obama, as President anyway. What’s not to like? I think it’s the combination of stubborn arrogance and left-liberal dogmatism.  By now even the CW recognizes that Obama’s not a very good public salesman when it comes to convincing voters of positions they might not already hold. Actually, he’s bad at it (see Obamacare, popularity), though it’s not at all clear he realizes this. He’s also not a very good Congressional negotiator (see Woodward, Bob). Obama’s instinct is almost never to triangulate, even when triangulating (e.g. making government cuts Dems in Congress hate) would leave Republicans gibbering in helplessness. Yes, he got an amazing number of things done his first two years in office. You would too if you had the House and 60 votes in the Senate.

But he f**ked up. The most consequential f**kup was his failure to sell his health care plan on its appealing advantages–a secure floor of coverage that would allow Americans to move freely from job to job–instead of speculative and suspect notions of cost-cutting that appeal mainly to the New York Times ed board. Here’s a list with nine more screwups. I’d add a big 11th screwup now: welfare reform. Well-connected journalist friends of mine swear Obama believes in work requirements.  If so, he’s got a strange way of showing it, since he put veteran opponents of work requirements in charge of  welfare. And–shocker–they eventually decided they would give HHS bureaucrats like themselves power to eviscerate work requirements through state-by-state waivers.

I’ve never written this before, but it’s hard not to be annoyed at the allegedly neoliberal Chicago-born journalists (including some of my friends) who helped foist Obama on the nation.  Wasn’t it clear to them, as it is to us now, that he didn’t have the experience you’d want a president to have? It’s not just that he didn’t realize there were no “shovel ready” projects, as he jokingly admitted to one of the Chicagoans, Jonathan Alter. (Ha ha! So funny.) It’s that he hadn’t acquired a capacity for legislative wheedling or a facility for public explication. He was promoted too far too fast (yes, because of his race. Duh.). Worse, as Peggy Noonan notes, he has shown little public inclination to admit error or adjust course (though I’ve heard some slightly more encouraging stories from ex-aides). By comparison, Bill Clinton was a creative genius–he recognized reforming welfare would rebuild support for other benefit programs, and that claiming to “save social security first” would allow him to amass budget surpluses, to name two innovations. Obama seems an intellectual plodder, marching grimly ahead, butting against any legislative walls like a defective Roomba. There is no reason to expect his second term performance would be better, or different, than his first.

But I admit that when I recently reread that list of 10 screwups it wasn’t the searing indictment I thought it was at the time. With a few exceptions (see immigration, below), it’s just a list of screwups, not wrong directions. We needed stimulus (though maybe not the Congressional Dem wish list we got). We needed some system of universal health insurance. The auto industry needed to be propped up with federal money, lest it drag the whole supply chain down (it’s just that Obama should have driven a much harder bargain, especially with the UAW).

So what about those two, big pending irreversible policy choices–one in which Obama’s direction seems right and the other where he is seriously misguided?

1. Obamacare: The Affordable Care Act is going to be a big mess. I don’t argue with Obama’s instincts–it makes sense to try a system of controlled competition between private insurers before moving to single payer, Medicare-style system. Maybe competition will bring down costs. That’s the theory behind Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts reform and Bush’s Part D drug program, both of which seem relatively successful. I wouldn’t even second guess the President’s decision to go for Obamacare when he had 60 votes, even if that hurt the recovery by giving businesses a disincentive to hire (if only by creating uncertainty).

But the plan Congress enacted will create a big new demand for services without creating lots of new doctors, inevitably straining a system that’s already strained. To achieve near-universality, it relies excessively on the historically inferior Medicaid program, creating a system of tiered care that frustrates those (including me) who hoped the health system could become a powerful enforcer of social equality in the midst of money inequality. The price tag of the program was hidden. True, there’s a cost-cutting board that will try to exercise the sort of power over treatments that the Fed has over the money supply. In theory it won’t ration, though the cost-cutting imperatives point in that direction and the President’s own statements indicate he thinks it should, at least toward the end of life. (If denying cancer-stricken grandmothers hip operations isn’t rationing, what is? Hip operations aren’t untested, risky new technologies.) We’ll soon see a highly questionable attempt to push poor elderly people off of Medicare and onto Medicaid “managed care,” allegedly in the name of efficiency. In the core of Obamacare, the famous “exchanges,” it’s always possible not enough insurers will show up, or that they’ll be able to collude on prices, or that there won’t be enough healthy people joining (despite the “mandate”) to prevent a big price hike for the relatively sick people who do sign up, making it likely that even fewer healthy people will join, further raising the price, etc..

But these, and other, problems can be addressed. If you are a businessman, at this point isn’t the fastest way to eliminate “uncertainty” to see Obamacare through, rather than ripping it up to create whole new, equally uncertain system? It’s not completely clear that Mitt Romney would do that–he obviously likes Romneycare, and picked aides who do too, such as possible chief of staff Michael Leavitt. But (as Coulter argued) he’s pretty clearly promised this one to his party. Romneyesque attempts to weasel out of that promise–say, by abolishing only the “mandate”–will be a good way to reduce his support to the low 30s by May.

2) Immigration: David Brooks and Tom Friedman agree–“immigration reform” is (once again) the Grand Bargain On Tap, once we get past various pressing budgetary issues. If Congress doesn’t pass some form of “comprehensive” immigration amnesty, then Congress is polarized and broken! Luckily President Obama will overcome this polarization in his second term … um, how? The conventional argument is that Republicans will be awed by the punishing power of the Latino vote. But it doesn’t look as if too many marginal GOP congresspersons are going to be losing their jobs, let alone losing them because they opposed an immigration amnesty. True, if Obama wins, Latinos are quite likely to have supplied his winning margin in a couple of swing states–but that seems more likely to annoy Karl Rove and other national consultants than intimidate newly reelected GOP Congressmen. Will they really want to compromise their principles to give Obama the right to claim victory in the battle over immigration, awarding Dems bragging rights for a decade and creating millions of new future Democrats in the process? Just because they fear a Latino backlash they were easily able to overcome?

There’s really little reason beyond E.J. Dionnish hope to think that Obama will be able to get “comprehensive immigration reform” through a legislature that looks like this one looks like it will look.

A Republican president, on the other hand, is a constant threat to sell out strike an amnesty deal in order to curry unaccustomed favor with America’s fastest second-fastest growing immigrant group. (Asians are now the fastest-growing.) That’s what Rove and Romney adviser Ed Gillespie will tell him. It’s presumably what Leavitt, who supported the amnesty-friendly Utah Compact, will tell him. It’s what Grover Norquist and half the Daily Caller staff will tell him! And it’s what he pledged to do within a year at the “town hall” debate–thereby throwing away the claim he might have had that he clearly got reelected without pandering to Hispanics on the immigration issue.

Immigration restrictionist Mark Krikorian outlines a fairly limited deal Romney might cut: a narrow “DREAM” style amnesty (for only those immigrants brought here illegally when quite young) coupled with useful “enforcement” measures like “E-Verify”employment checks. Romney’s likelier to cut such a moderate deal than Obama, who has more to gain from being stubborn, insisting on full amnesty, blaming Republicans and keeping the issue alive for Dems in future elections. But it’s as likely Romney will get nothing. (Many businessmen don’t like being forced to use E-Verify.) And there’s a substantial possibility he’d wind up getting a full amnesty from Congress. He’d have Democratic votes, plus more GOP votes than Obama could muster.

Why take the risk? We tried a full amnesty-plus-enforcement Brooks/Friedman Grand Bargain in 1986. We got the amnesty–but almost as soon as the bill passed business, civil liberties and Latino groups successfully undermined the enforcement part, so we also got the 11 million new illegal immigrants we’re talking about amnestying now. I have no doubt America as we know it would survive–no, prosper–if those 11 million were made citizens. What America as we know it might not survive would be an endless cycle of illegal immigration and forgiveness– in which enforcement keeps failing while amnesty after amnesty keeps attracting more of the world’s most desperate workers. (Immigration flows have been stalled or reversed in the current slow economy, but we don’t know what will happen when it recovers. As housing picks up, will illlegal construction workers come back? If I were a non-illegal construction worker I wouldn’t want to assume the answer’s no.) The right strategy is Enforcement First–secure the borders, let the ACLU and La Raza sue, then if the enforcement measures survive and work we can talk about amnesty.

Low skilled American workers (including legal immigrants) are the group that’s been most screwed by globalization and technology over the last few years. It would be odd if, after the endless hand-wringing over income inequality, the first step the new administration took would be one that made this least-rich group even worse off by subjecting them to more immigrant competition. It would be more ironic if a populist Osawatomist Democrat was the President who screwed them again. But, barring a sudden collapse of Republican numbers in Congress,  he won’t be able to. At least I’m 95% sure he won’t be able to.

I’ll stick with the candidate who can’t get it done.

*   *   *   *   *

Aren’t there other issues? I suppose! But here the  possible lasting impact either isn’t as great–a few percentage points difference in the top tax rate isnt going to transform society, or the economy–or else the difference favors Obama. Quickly:

Supreme Court: The speed with which an untested theory of the Commerce Clause–that the individual mandate impermissably punished “inaction”– moved from the pixels of the Volokh Conspiracy into a Supreme Court opinion signed by four Justices was breathtaking, and a little scary. Conservative “originialist” activism has finally achieved maturity and become almost as alarming as conventional liberal judicial activism. The only defense against both these activisms, as far as I can see, is the filibuster–i.e., the need for any new Justice to get 60 votes in the Senate. That protects us from both Obama’s potential radicals and Romney’s potential radicals.  The Roberts flip on Obamacare seems to validate that strategy–there’s a reason he was confirmed and Bork wasn’t.

A second Obama term would present a special challenge to the Court: Obama, frustrated by Congress and the constitutional system, has resorted to various “we can’t wait” power grabs, which are crying out for sharp limitation by the Justices. I’m pretty confident that even Obama appointees will perform that function–it’s the sort of thing lawyers, even liberal lawyers, do. I also expect Justice Kennedy to stay on the bench if Obama wins, limiting the potential for a rubber stamp.

Foreign Policy: We’re told Romney emerged as a “realist” in the foreign policy debate. Maybe. But there are still too many adventurous neoconnish thinkers around him.  “Devil you know” applies.

Environmentalism: Not my department. I assume “green jobs” initiatives are a swamp of failure, waste, and unwarranted subsidies–but a relatively small swamp. And one that won’t grow that much if Republicans keep the House. If the EPA moves too boldly on its own to regulate carbon emissions, it’s likely to be stopped (by either the courts or by Congress, or both).

Big Bird: It would be nice to apply Romney’s budget-cutting talents to the federal bureaucracy generally. That’s his major advantage over Obama–he has a track record, described here by Coulter. Obama’s shown no appetite for actually inflicting some pain on the D.C. metropolitan economy by paring a federal work force marbled with redundancy. But much as I’d love to see D.C. suffer, it’s more important to preserve salutary gridlock on Obamacare and immigration.

The ideal kausfiles election outcome, when it comes to achieving that end, seems  … well, you tell me: We’d need a) Republicans to retain control of the House and at least their current filibuster veto in the Senate while b) Obama loses every state in which Romney has attacked him on his welfare backsliding (Ohio, Colorado) while c) Latinos provide a winning margin nowhere; yet d) Obama somehow wins. Seems unlikely! The actual returns will be less than “optimal,” as Jon Stewart might say. But we can come close.


**–Ezra Klein agrees on the Obamacare part.

Mickey Kaus