Debunking the “ObamaCare is Conservative” Myth, Part 1

One myth has been prevalent, if not pervasive, throughout the entire debate over health care reform, from President Barack Obama’s first overtures for universal coverage to this very moment. When the left is thrown on the defensive over a point of principle or policy, they almost always resort to invoking this singular myth. What’s the myth? Let me summarize it:

“ObamaCare” is a conservative health care law whose main tenet (the individual mandate) was originally created by the conservative Heritage Foundation and proposed as a bill by conservatives in 1993. Now, a conservative-appointed Chief Justice leading a conservative Supreme Court has upheld that conservative law, and the only reason conservatives are so intent on attacking “ObamaCare” is partisanship/racism/political gamesmanship/fill in the blank.

Wow. Pretty damning stuff. If all of that is true, doesn’t it mean that we conservatives are just big, fat hypocrites? Sure. Fortunately for us, every element of this myth is either incorrect or, at the very least, misleading. Before we go through each individual accusation in that summary, however, we need to lay a bit of groundwork first.

What is a conservative?

If we don’t understand who’s a conservative and who isn’t, then we’ll never be able to tackle the myth in a meaningful way. While there are dozens of breeds of conservatism and perhaps thousands of definitions, I’m partial to the way historian and political philosopher Russell Kirk wrote on the subject:

The thinking conservative, young or old, believes that we must all obey the universal law of change; yet often it is in our power to choose what changes we will accept and what changes we will reject. The conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time. “To conserve” means “to save.” …A conservative is not, by definition, a selfish or a stupid person; instead, he is a person who believes there is something in our life worth saving.

In fact, I would suggest that you read the entire essay, particularly as it is short in length but plentiful in wisdom. In practice, American conservatives tend to support the idea of a natural law, and the idea that we may use logic to discern our natural rights under that law. We support the existence of government provided that it is limited to its just and proper duties and powers under the Constitution. We support property rights, and I’ll quote Kirk once more to elaborate:

Justice means that every man and every woman have the right to what is their own—to the things best suited to their own nature, to the rewards of their ability and integrity, to their property and their personality.

…Property and freedom are inseparably connected; economic leveling is not economic progress. Conservatives value property for its own sake, of course; but they value it even more because without it all men and women are at the mercy of an omnipotent government.

Is there more to conservatism than what I’ve suggested here? Of course, but the point of this essay is not to provide a comprehensive definition of conservatism. It’s to debunk a myth. So, let’s get right along to that.

Republicans, Conservatives, and the Tea Party

When the left bring up the myth that ObamaCare is “conservative” in both its nature and origin, what they really mean to say is that conservatives are hypocrites for fighting against it. The left’s frustration with the continuing conservative resistance to ObamaCare is palpable, and their invoking of this myth is meant to create doubt amongst conservatives while making us look like mean-spirited, intellectually dishonest fools to everyone else.

However, the myth makes the mistake of conflating the word “conservative” with the word “Republican.” Let’s take another look at the summarized myth, and I’ll bold every incorrect use of the word “conservative” where the accusers really ought to be saying “Republican:”

“ObamaCare” is a conservative health care law whose main tenet (the individual mandate) was originally created by the conservative Heritage Foundation and proposed as a bill by conservatives in 1993. Now, a conservative-appointed Chief Justice leading a conservative Supreme Court has upheld that conservative law, and the only reason conservatives are so intent on attacking “ObamaCare” is partisanship/racism/political gamesmanship/fill in the blank.

As you might notice, nearly half of the uses of the word “conservative” ought to be “Republican.” Now, be aware that I’m not conceding that the other four uses of the word “conservative” are correct. I’m addressing one specific problem with the myth, and I’ll address the others in subsequent essays.

Republicans, of course, are simply members of the Republican Party,  and in many cases they are not conservative. Indeed, throughout most of its history, the Republican Party has not been conservative.

Let’s remember that the primary purpose of a political party, its raison d’être, is to elect candidates from its ranks to public office. That’s it. The Republican Party doesn’t exist to promote conservatism, just as the Democratic Party doesn’t exist to promote progressivism. Both parties may do so anyway, but they will only do so as a means to the end of getting people elected.

In contrast to the Republican Party, the “Tea Party” isn’t actually a political party at all. It’s a political movement formed by citizens who desire to promote individual liberty, constitutionally limited government, free markets, and fiscal conservatism. In this way, I believe it would be fair to say that the Tea Party is a conservative movement, whereas the Republican Party might just happen to have conservatives within it.

Is it true that most members of the Tea Party are Republicans? Sure. However, that overlap is primarily due to two things: history and responsiveness. In living memory, the rhetoric (if not the practice) of the Republican Party has been more conservative than that of the Democratic Party.

Additionally, as the Tea Party grew, the Republican Party took steps to align itself with that movement. In other words, Republicans were more responsive than Democrats to adopting the ideas of the Tea Party. I don’t believe that the political philosophy of the Republican Party’s leadership grew any more conservative, but they did realize that they could reap benefits at the voting booth if the Republican Party began to support more conservative candidates, and so they did.

Let’s consider something else: Political parties change dramatically over time. The composition and stated platform of today’s Republican Party is significantly different than the Republican Party of 1912, 1952, 1992, or even 2002. The same is true of the Democratic Party, which is now considered far more liberal on social issues such as racism, but which was once the party of slaveholders. It’s not fair to ascribe the views of past Republicans or Democrats to contemporary Republicans or Democrats.

Refuting the Label of Hypocrite

By conflating the word “Republican” with “conservative” or “Tea Party,” I argue that the left is being dishonest in its attempt to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy. While many Republican politicians may indeed be charged with hypocrisy for their sudden reversal on issues such as the individual mandate, conservatives may justly fight for full repeal of ObamaCare without feeling any such guilt.

In my next post, I’ll separate every element of the myth and examine the accuracy of each in turn. In particular, I’ll look at the Heritage Foundation’s role in originating the individual mandate.

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About Daniel Anderson

I am a 21 year old Michigan native completing the final year of my undergraduate education at Hillsdale College. I tend to categorize my political philosophy as "constitutional conservatism." I also advocate free-market economics.
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