Debunking the “ObamaCare is Conservative” Myth, Part 2

There are hundreds, if not thousands of myths floating around the media and the Internet regarding ObamaCare. Considering that the final bill weighed in at a staggering 2,801 pages, perhaps it isn’t surprising that there’s so much confusion regarding its provisions and potential impact. I would argue that the prevailing myth amongst liberals is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a conservative law. Much of this myth relies on equating conservatives to Republicans, which I’ve argued can’t be honestly done.

For convenience’s sake, here is the myth in its entirety:

“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.

Today, I want to dissect this myth.The full myth contains eight claims.  By looking at each individual claim made in the myth, we can determine whether or not the myth is valid. Due to the length of some of these answers, I’ll only examine the first four of these claims today.

1.) “ObamaCare” is a conservative health care law

This claim can be understood in two different ways. First, the myth’s proponents could be arguing that ObamaCare is intrinsically conservative due to its provisions. They could argue that the bill promotes individual responsibility and that it’s pro-business, and that it’s therefore conservative. That’s a weighty claim, and I will dedicate the fourth and final post in this series to addressing its merits.

Second, they could be arguing that ObamaCare is a conservative health care law because conservatives have proposed and promoted similar laws in the past. An interesting side note: A few progressives have argued that President Barack Obama is actually a conservative president, but I obviously don’t buy into those claims. If you’re a Marxist, everyone who disagrees with you is hopelessly misled by their false consciousness. If you’re an anarchist, everyone who disagrees with you is an authoritarian statist. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but only from this black-and-white perspective can one consider President Obama a conservative (and his proposed policies therefore conservative policies), and so I won’t really take this argument seriously.

What about the main claim that conservatives have proposed and promoted similar laws? I believe that this claim relies a great deal on the argument that I discredited in my previous post. Namely, that the terms “conservative” and “Republican” are interchangeable.

Since “RomneyCare” is the best-known law similar to ObamaCare, I’ll use that as my example. When Mitt Romney was Governor of Massachusetts, he may have been relatively conservative for his state, but he was still a moderate by national standards. He was a Republican, but he wasn’t a conservative. Not all Republicans are conservatives, and not all conservatives are Republicans. With that said, there are other possible “conservative” examples that could be used, but I’ll address some of those in future claims.

2.) The individual mandate is the heart of the law

I would agree with this claim, as the individual mandate is what makes the rest of the law tick. By forcing Americans to purchase health insurance, the individual mandate creates a huge stream of revenue for insurance companies, allowing them to comply with the expensive mandates set upon them by ObamaCare, such as guaranteed issue and community rating.

If the Supreme Court had struck down the individual mandate and related provisions, would there have still been something left of the law? Yes, but it would mostly be peripheral provisions of significantly less importance than the individual mandate. While there’s more to the law than the individual mandate, the individual mandate is the heart of ObamaCare. This claim is correct.

3.) The Heritage Foundation created the individual mandate

This is one of the most ubiquitous components of the myth amongst the left and the media. I don’t consider this surprising, since the Heritage Foundation is the most well-known “conservative” think tank in America. It’s a massive, far-reaching enterprise and it has spent decades as the standard-bearer of American conservatism for most national observers.

On a technical level, I would argue that the myth is incorrect. It’s true that Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation was the first to propose an individual mandate to purchase health insurance in 1989. Some have said that the individual mandate first appeared in a paper by economist Alain C. Enthoven of the Jackson Hole Group, but that paper was actually published three years later in 1992.

While Butler did create the individual mandate, it would be misleading to say that the Heritage Foundation created it. If Butler were officially calling for the individual mandate as a spokesman for Heritage, it would be very different, but that’s not the case. Please note the clear disclaimer at the start of Butler’s essay:

Note: Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.

So, while Stuart Butler may be appropriately named the Father of the Individual Mandate, the Heritage Foundation itself can claim no such paternity. May the Heritage Foundation bear a little bit of the blame for promoting Butler’s individual mandate later on in response to HillaryCare? Perhaps, but that’s very different from creating it.

And what about Butler himself? Is he still a conservative even though he created the individual mandate? Well, yes. We all make mistakes, as human nature is obviously flawed. At times, we make arguments that we haven’t fully thought through for the purpose of winning a debate, or out of desperation. With the potentially disastrous idea of an employer mandate floating around health care policy circles for years prior to Butler’s essay, he understandably wanted to make a case for an alternative reform.

His alternative reform proposal turned out to be a bad idea as well, but he has at least admitted as much. A note on that article: In it, Butler claims that he came up with the individual mandate in order to provide a “viable alternative” to President Clinton’s plan. However, since President George H.W. Bush was still in office when Butler first proposed the individual mandate, I consider this a misleading claim.

He also points out three differences between the individual mandate that he proposed and the at the heart of ObamaCare, but I would argue that those differences are important only on a technical level. The principle of government compelling people into commerce was the same. There are several other debatable points in the essay, but I’ll leave it at that for the sake of brevity.

4.) The Heritage Foundation is conservative

For most readers, this is an open-and-shut claim. “Is the Heritage Foundation conservative!? Duh!” I understand why you would think that, too. As I said earlier, the Heritage Foundation has long been the standard-bearer of American conservatism in the popular eye. Still, while I acknowledge that the Heritage Foundation is conservative in many respects and that there’s a lot of credibility to this claim, I do think that there’s some room for argument.

Have you ever wondered why some people and organizations maintain their relevance for decades, regardless of whichever direction the political winds blow? Consider President Bill Clinton. Once elected to the Oval Office, and ignoring the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton has retained a great deal of popularity, clout, and importance in national politics ever since.

How did Clinton do it? He moved with the popular mood. When the Contact with America sent a wave of relatively conservative legislators to Congress, Clinton shifted to the right. When President Obama won the White House in a backlash against President George W. Bush, Clinton shifted to the left.

I would argue that the Heritage Foundation has done something similar, and has thereby maintained its relevance for decades. Putting it concisely, Heritage is always more conservative than the current Republican establishment, but never a lot more conservative. So, when big-government Republicans are in control, such as before the Contact with America or under President George W. Bush, the Heritage Foundation is markedly less conservative. With the explosion of limited government conservatism coming with the arrival of the Tea Party, the Heritage Foundation shifted farther to the right and became more conservative.

You can contrast Heritage’s shifting with the libertarian Cato Institute, which almost always takes a purist position on issues and therefore rarely shifts regardless of the national mood or who’s in power. In this way, Heritage has served a valuable role as the “establishment conservative” group in Washington, D.C. Therefore, it may be misleading to consider the think tank the “standard-bearer” of American conservatism. but it would be accurate to say that Heritage is the standard-bearer of conservatism in our nation’s capital.

What is the relevance of this distinction to the myth that ObamaCare is conservative? Well, if you agree with my argument that Stuart Butler, not the Heritage Foundation, is responsible for creating the individual mandate, then there isn’t much relevance, because Heritage never enters into the picture.

But what if you believe that Heritage is indirectly responsible for creating the mandate, because they employed Butler, provided him with a forum for his ideas, and even promoted those ideas after the fact in response to HillaryCare? In that case, it’s important to understand that the Heritage Foundation, following President Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory and prior to the Contract with America’s surge of conservatism in 1994, wasn’t a truly conservative organization at the time.

Think back to what I argued about Mitt Romney. In the context of his state as Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney was relatively conservative. By the same token, I would argue that in the context of contemporary politics and the very liberal mood in Washington, the Heritage Foundation was only relatively conservative when they were promoting health care reform incorporating an individual mandate.

As a sidebar, I do want to say that I greatly respect both Stuart Butler and the Heritage Foundation. They’ve done an incredible amount of excellent work in supporting and promoting conservatism in America, and they have fought a difficult battle with a very liberal Washington establishment long before some of the more recent conservative groups took up the fight.

As an organization, Heritage has usually played with the cards dealt to it. In some cases, this has led to unfortunate results, such as Butler’s individual mandate. In most cases, however, Heritage has been an important and effective defender of liberty in America, and I do not mean to belittle or insult it for being a prudent rather than purist organization, in some respects. Heritage’s leadership wants to make sure that they’re always “players” in the formation of policy, and that’s a respectable position to take.

Since this is already a fairly lengthy post, I’ll wait until tomorrow to address the final four claims made in the myth that ObamaCare is conservative. Tomorrow is also my 21st birthday, so that post might not go up until later in the evening, as I will likely be busy during the day.

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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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2 Responses to Debunking the “ObamaCare is Conservative” Myth, Part 2

  1. Elliot says:

    My thoughts on the encroaching communist menace that is Nobamacare:

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