The right's grave new threat: Why its political institutions now must fail

Led by Obamacare, a flurry of recent developments in conservative politics underscore why the movement can't adapt

Published February 5, 2014 6:45PM (EST)

Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz                                      (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Monday, apropos of what I'm not sure, conservative technologist Patrick Ruffini tweeted a thoughtful and detailed critique of existing conservative institutions, arguing that the movement needs newer, better ones if the American right is to be more than a safe haven for refugees from the broader culture.

On Tuesday, nearly every conservative institution of influence -- the Republican Party and its enablers and antagonists in the movement -- united to perpetuate a major fiction about the Affordable Care Act.

These sound like unrelated issues, but in fact the latter exemplifies why Ruffini's dream of a mature conservatism with broad public appeal isn't going to materialize any time soon. The existing conservative movement's worst practices aren't a consequence of the ossification of old institutions. They flow naturally from the composition of the movement itself. And that movement won't tolerate the kind of institutional vision Ruffini contemplates.

A conservatism of national consensus would have to depart from the existing movement in many ways, but the most immediate substantive and lexical shift would have to be the abandonment of Obamacare dead enderism. Not that the new conservatism would need to embrace the Affordable Care Act. But it would have to recognize the on-the-ground reality that repeal is an impossible goal with marginal support, and direct its energies toward modifying the law in modest, but conservative-friendly ways.

But the existing movement draws its energy from cultural reactionaries who demand fealty to unpopular policies and also happen to be party activists. Which helps explain the professional right's reaction to an updated Congressional Budget Office analysis of the law's impact on the economy.

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Cantor was just one of the dozens of Republicans to make a statement along these lines. Every word of this one is false.

The CBO report in question contained mostly good, but some bad news for Obamacare. It concludes that the outage last year will reduce near-term enrollment in private plans and Medicaid by 2 million people and that the means-tested nature of the benefits will induce some people to work fewer hours in order to preserve their level of subsidization. Some of these people will be grateful for the inducement, which is good. Others will succumb to it reluctantly, which is bad. Ironically a universal benefit like single-payer would eliminate this inducement altogether.

But hundreds of thousands of people will also reduce their hours or exit the work force voluntarily because the law weakens what healthcare economists call "job lock" -- a phenomenon that indentures millions of people to jobs they don't want because unsatisfying employment is the only way they can obtain health insurance. Add up all the hours of work that people will stop doing and CBO estimates that the workforce will shrink by the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time workers over the next 10 years because of the ACA.

That will reduce economic growth. It will also improve the lives of myriad older workers, sicker workers and workers with children, and create upward pressure on wages for people who remain in the workforce, or are enticed back in, to compete for their jobs. Whether you think that's a good tradeoff on balance is a question of values. But most conservatives didn't engage that debate. Instead, they lied to their supporters and gullible reporters about what the CBO actually said, and then got called out repeatedly by neutral arbiters. People won't be losing or getting pushed out of their jobs. They'll be leaving voluntarily. Those who remain will be earning more. And to the extent that Obamacare will "kill jobs," (it won't) a new GOP alternative to Obamacare will do the same -- as will any plan that makes it easier for working-age people to obtain insurance outside of the workplace.

Anti-ACA reactionaries don't want to hear that though. So that's not what they were told.

Instead they were told that Republican leaders are leaning toward demanding the repeal of Obamacare's "insurance company bailout" as a ransom for increasing the debt limit. This refers to the law's "risk corridors," which protect insurers from greater-than-expected losses in the ACA's early years, but simultaneously allow the public to share in greater-than-expected insurer profits over the same span. Conservatives have assumed that the provision will cost the government money, and that any net payout, no matter how small, would amount to a "bailout." Here's a lengthier look at the origins of this smear.

Well, the same CBO report that didn't find Obamacare will cost millions of people their jobs did conclude that the risk corridors will probably net $8 billion for the government. If anything the finding argues for making the risk corridors permanent, to prevent insurers from skimming billions of dollars away from the public in the out years. But conservatives will still call risk corridors a bailout, and continue angling for repeal, because repealing the risk corridors would threaten to disrupt the insurance market and sabotaging Obamacare is something the right expects them to do.

Elsewhere in Obamacare, Arkansas Republicans are threatening to rescind the state's Medicaid expansion for over 80,000 new beneficiaries. And in non-Obamacare news Mike Huckabee has vaulted to the top of the heap in the GOP shadow primary for the presidency because he thinks controlling the female libido is a remedy for the problem of birth control demand; conservatives freaked out over Coca-Cola's Super Bowl ad, which featured immigrants singing "America the Beautiful" in other languages; and those conservatives appear to be winning an internal fight over whether House Republicans should pass immigration reform legislation.

These stories reflect the cultural attitudes of millions of activist conservatives. And you can't rebuild a movement around the politics of consensus if it's composed of people who rebel against the consensus reflexively.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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