Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Refighting old battles

It is comforting to live in a state where the elected leaders, or some of them, do not chase the latest political chimera or lose their wits when the mob is pounding on the door. Gov. Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said they were not going to accede to the demands of 33 Republican lawmakers and have the state defy federal law. It didn’t work when the slave states tried it in 1861 or when Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus tried it again in 1957, and they are not going to risk the state’s treasury and reputation again by doing such a frivolous, foolish and utterly wasteful thing, the governor and the state’s lawyer-in-chief said.

The Republicans want state officials to do something to stop the new health-insurance law from taking effect in Arkansas, principally the part that requires people in 2014 to buy health insurance or else pay a tax like they do for Social Security and Medicare.

The theory is that the federal government has no right under the Constitution to require people to buy insurance or pay a tax and that state governments can just declare a federal law off limits in their boundaries. Republican officials in 14 states are suing to stop the national government from infringing on the states’ sovereignty by mandating health insurance for everyone.

To win, they have to overcome 207 years of case law.

“They tried it here in Arkansas in ’57 and it didn’t work,” Beebe said. “I think you’ve got to tell people the truth. And if I understand the law, the truth is the federal government can’t just be defied by the state governments.” Beebe understands the law pretty well. He was a spectacularly successful lawyer before he was the attorney general.

And McDaniel, his successor: “I would be abusing my office to bring a suit that I believe to be constitutionally frivolous. State budgets are tight enough right now without bringing actions that are entirely driven by political motivation rather than sound legal justification.”

Beebe and McDaniel are not champions of the new health insurance law, although Beebe’s sole objection to it seems disingenuous. He doesn’t like the state being required to start paying a small share of the cost of covering poor working families in Arkansas in 2017. But if you engage the state in defying any federal law that has an objectionable feature, where do you stop?

Beebe was in the state Senate when the state gingerly undid the last defiance of this sort. The legislature in 1989 referred a constitutional amendment to the people that repealed the interposition and nullification law of 1956, which had ordered the state to protect racial discrimination in Arkansas any time the national government tried to end it. Arkansas voters ratified the repeal amendment in 1990, although the 1956 law had been a dead letter from the day it was adopted. Now some Republicans want to revive the stand of the white supremacists, only this time to prevent medical coverage for everyone rather than just human rights for black citizens.

The Republican crusade against mandatory health insurance may be the most mystifying political about-face in U.S. history. In the spring of 2010, the Republican Party officially views mandatory insurance as an irreversible stride toward a socialist state and a government takeover of health care. But for most of the previous 40 years, that was exactly the Republican solution to the growing health-care crisis. In the early 1970s, Presidents Nixon and Ford pushed a sweeping version of what is now called Obamacare, requiring all American businesses to supply health insurance for their workers, but Democrats wanted a Medicare-for-all arrangement.

When Bill Clinton pressed for a universal insurance system in the 1990s, the ultra-conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, proposed a system like the new law based on mandatory individual purchase of insurance. Twenty Republican senators, including current leaders like Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley and Christopher Bond, introduced a bill requiring everyone to buy health insurance. (Hatch and Grassley explained recently that they were confused back then and didn’t know what they were doing.) Moderate Republicans led by Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island introduced a modified version that required individual insurance purchases, and it appeared for a while that they might get together with Clinton.

Just as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy would later rue his refusal to embrace the Republican plan in 1974, President Clinton seemed to regret not seizing the opportunity to pass an imperfect but workable idea for meeting his goal because it was Republican. When Republican Gov. Mitt Romney put the whole plan into effect in Massachusetts four years ago, Kennedy and other Democratic leaders decided it was after all the easiest path to the goal.

That thoroughly Republican idea — spread the risk by having everyone patronize private industry — is now the law. It took 40 years for Republicans to win the great ideological struggle, but at the moment of victory they retreated from the field of glory, repudiated their aims and sued to undo their triumph.

There must be a parallel in the Civil War where the victors left the field — there’s a parallel for everything in the Civil War — but we can’t think of it.