During Barack Obama’s Sunday appearance on Fox News, the interviewer asked him for an example of “a hot-button issue where you would be willing to buck the Democratic Party line” and say that Republicans have the better idea.
Mr. Obama’s answer was puzzling because he gave credit where it isn’t due — and thereby undermined what could be a very effective Democratic line of argument.
In particular, Mr. Obama attributed to Republicans the idea that regulation can be flexible rather than a matter of “top-down command and control,” and in particular for the idea of controlling pollution with a system of tradable emission permits rather than rigid regulations.
Well, that’s not at all what actually happened — and the tale of what really did happen has a lot of relevance to current events.
It’s true that the first President Bush established a market-based system for controlling sulfur dioxide emissions, which has been highly successful at controlling acid rain. But by then the idea of markets in emission permits had long been accepted by economists of all political stripes.
And it had also been accepted by leading Democrats. The Environmental Protection Agency began letting cities meet air-quality standards using emissions-trading systems during the Carter administration — which also led the way on deregulation of airlines and trucking.
Furthermore, the sulfur dioxide scheme actually marked a sharp change in policy from the Reagan administration, which — committed to the belief that government is always the problem, never the solution — spent eight years opposing any effort to control acid rain.
Rather than admit that pollution is a problem the government has to solve — even as the consequences of acid rain became ever more alarming, not to mention as America’s failure to act provoked a near-crisis in relations with Canada, which was suffering the effects of U.S.-generated sulfur dioxide — the Reaganites insisted that there was no problem at all. They denied the evidence, questioned the science, called for more research and did nothing. Sound familiar?
And that, surely, is the line the Democrats should be pushing in this election: Republicans have become the party of denial. If a problem can’t be solved with deregulation and tax cuts, they pretend it doesn’t exist.
Climate change is the obvious contemporary parallel with acid rain. But if the Democrats really want to pin the denialist label on John McCain, health care is the place to focus.
The health care situation, in case you haven’t noticed, is going from bad to worse. Many smaller companies stopped offering benefits between 2000 and 2005. In the past, health coverage has tended to improve when the economy recovers from recession — but the “Bush boom” brought at best a temporary stabilization.
And now that the economy is weakening again, another plunge is in progress: last week UnitedHealth warned investors that its business is suffering because fewer employers are offering coverage to their workers.
The Democrats have been offering real plans in response; they’re not perfect, but they are serious.
The G.O.P., by contrast — and this goes as much for Mr. McCain as for the Bush administration — hasn’t even tried to address concerns about coverage. Instead, it has all been about costs, which Republicans insist (wrongly) can be dramatically reduced by a policy of, you guessed it, deregulation and tax cuts.
Until a few days ago, the only answer the McCain campaign offered to those worried about lack of coverage was the vague, implausible assertion that the magic of the marketplace would make health care cheap enough for everyone to afford.
Now Mr. McCain has admitted that maybe a government program is needed for those who can’t get private insurance. This appears to be a response to criticism from Elizabeth Edwards, who has been pointing out that deregulated insurers would deny coverage to anyone with, say, a history of cancer — a category that includes both her and Mr. McCain himself. But the way Mrs. Edwards has rattled the McCain campaign is evidence of just how vulnerable he is on the issue.
The point is that the health care issue could be Exhibit A for a Democratic campaign based on the argument that they are the party of pragmatic solutions, while modern Republicans won’t even acknowledge problems that don’t fit into their rigid ideological framework.
But are Democrats ready to make that case?
To be clear, both Democratic candidates have been saying things they shouldn’t; Hillary Clinton shouldn’t have endorsed the bad idea of a gas tax holiday.
But I think Mr. Obama is doing much more harm to the Democratic cause by echoing Republican attack lines on such issues as insurance mandates and Social Security. And now he’s demonstrating his post-partisanship by giving Republicans credit for good ideas they never had.