Return of the Goldwater GOP

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Just outside our nation's capital, in affluent Montgomery and Fairfax counties, they still build public schools when the number of school-age children rises above the number that the existing schools can accommodate. Beyond question, there are parents in Fairfax and Montgomery who could easily afford to send their kids to private schools but who send them nonetheless to the excellent public schools in their neighborhoods They thus increase government spending and withhold revenue from the private-school industry, but I've never heard anyone complain about that. A free public education is a right, or, if you prefer, an entitlement in America, because the nation long ago decided that an educated population is a national good.

You might think that the same logic would apply to providing children with health care, that the gains to the nation from having a healthy population would outweigh those of bolstering private health insurance companies in the name of laissez-faire ideology. According to President Bush and the hard-right wing of the Republican Party, though, you'd be sadly mistaken. Bush fears that expanding health care for children from uninsured families who can't afford to buy insurance on their own (it costs about $11,000 a year for a family of four) would enable some families, as he put it at a news conference last month, collectively to "move millions of American children who now have private health insurance into government-run health care."

Nine million American children have no health coverage, a figure that rose by three-quarters of a million last year as the number of employers who offer health insurance to employees and their dependents continued to shrink. Congress has placed a bill on the president's desk that would expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to cover most of those children, but Bush argues that it could benefit some people who would otherwise stick with private insurers. By the same logic, no more public schools should be built in well-off communities. But public education is the American way, while publicly subsidized health care for children is creeping socialism.

The unacknowledged ideological secret of American life is that we have any number of somewhat socialized systems that flourish in plain view. The health-care system for veterans, which most analysts consider about the best America has to offer (and no, Walter Reed was not a VA facility), is socialized medicine pure and simple. Medicare is not a socialized system -- it pays for private medical care -- but is a single-payer system. Like education, these aren't parts of the economy that were wrested from the grasp of a covetous private sector. They address needs -- insuring all seniors, covering the costs of veterans, educating all children -- that private companies chose not to meet because these enterprises, however necessary, weren't profitable.

So it is with health insurance today. We have a massive, competitive private sector that has decided it cannot turn a buck on millions of Americans of modest means or uncertain health. If there were a private-sector solution to the problem of 9 million uninsured American children, the private sector would have found it.

But the president and those Republican members of Congress who join him in opposing SCHIP's expansion have a faith in laissez-faire ideology that cannot acknowledge the limits of what capitalism can, or even chooses to, do.

We hear a lot from Republicans these days, presidential candidates most especially, that they want to return their party to its roots, to make it once again the party of Ronald Reagan. Problem is, they've overshot Reagan and seem bent on reinventing the GOP as the party of Barry Goldwater.

Reagan's conservatism had wind in its sails: The stagflation and drift of the Carter years provided an opening for Reagan's limited rollback of government. What Goldwater personified, however, was the triumph of ideology over experience. He opposed Social Security and Medicare and voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the name of property and states rights. The needs of seniors, the claims of African Americans to equal rights, ran counter to Goldwater's theology of markets over people.

Today's Republicans seem determined to re-create that magical Goldwater self-marginalization. Opposing the provision of health care to children because it conflicts with one's faith in an economic future (capitalism insures everyone) that capitalism itself does not really share (or it would insure everyone) is the same kind of theological nuttiness that led to the Goldwater debacle. In the name of attacking socialism, what Republicans are really doing is affronting the empiricism and the pragmatism, not to mention the decency, of the American people. At, one need hardly add, their own risk.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company