Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is a moderate Democrat. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is a moderate Republican. They are both pragmatists who believe that the challenges of governing in polarized America requires cooperation across party lines. The two have a growing friendship that they hope to use to produce and promote a bipartisan approach to improving the U.S. health care system (or at least the portion of it that is driven by federal money and federal government rules and regulations).
I can’t say I expect anything to come from this, but I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong.
The two governors made a joint appearance yesterday on “Face the Nation” and described their effort.
Start at center, reach left and right
The basic idea was that you start somewhere near the political/ideological center and you reach out to moderate lefty and moderate righty members of Congress and see if there’s a version of health care reform that could pass with moderate support from both parties and without the support of members of Congress who dwell on what might be called the flaming left (single-payer) or right (full repeal of the Affordable Care Act with no replacement).
Personally, in the long run, I favor single-payer. As I’ve mentioned before, many countries that have variations of single-payer spend much less on health care and get much better overall results than the U.S. system gets or ever has gotten. But, at the moment, while Bernie Sanders made single-payer a thinkable thought for the first time in America, it is politically impossible in the short- or medium-term, and a great many people need a short- or medium solution to their health insurance needs.
In their joint “Face the Nation” interview, Kasich and Hickenlooper were fairly short on how their centrist plan would work. Maybe there’s no such thing. But the basic concept seemed to be that a plan that would significantly increase the number of uninsured Americans cannot attract support from Democrats and a plan that significantly increases the government cost and the government role in the health care system cannot attract support from Republicans.
If you start out in the exact center of the current spectrum, can you move a bit left on some pieces and a bit right on others and build a centrist plan that could not only pass and avoid throwing tens of millions into the ranks of the uninsured, but burst the repeal-and pretend-to-replace Obamacare fever?
You can read a transcript of the Kasich-Hickenlooper segment, or watch the 12-minutes segment here. If you do, you might, like me, be concerned that there is no such centrist plan that would actually make things better and have a chance to pass.
That, in significant part, is because there isn’t much of a middle in Congress any more. Almost every Republican is to the right of almost every Democrat and almost every Democrat is to the left of almost every Republican.
In theory, I like the idea of parties that actually stand for something, and run on that something and, if elected and in control, will legislate that something. In parliamentary systems, this kind of thing is easier to accomplish, in part because there is usually only one house that matters (like the House of Commons in Britain) and the leader of the majority in that house is also the prime minister (so no need to compromise across legislative and executive branches). The U.S. system, in that sense, is built for gridlock because you need agreement across two equally powerful legislative houses of Congress and the agreement of the separately elected president.
But in the past, in America, there was the possibility of an unofficial centrist caucus in the middle of Congress. Both major parties were sprawling coalitions. There were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats and a large number of moderates in both parties who formed a significant moderate coalition, which was often able to block far left or far right ideas and which could, on some occasions, form the basis of a big partisan coalition to get something moderate and bipartisan done.
That’s over. The parties have sorted themselves almost perfectly into left and right, which makes centrist compromise much harder and less likely. To draw again on yesterday’s morning shows, Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” made this point with impressive numbers, relying on the long term National Journal exercise of ranking members of the U.S. Congress, according to their voting records, along a left-right spectrum.
In 2002, an unofficial centrist caucus
As recently as 2002, 137 members of the U.S. House formed an unofficial centrist caucus. Specifically, when ranked on a left-right spectrum, about 149 Democrats were to the left of even the most moderate Republicans and 149 Republicans were right of the most moderate Democrats but 137 members formed a large bipartisan group, half Democrats and half Republicans, in the middle. No bill could pass without attracting significant support from moderates.
According to Todd’s presentation on yesterday’s “Meet the Press,” that unofficial moderate caucus is down to just four members of the House, two from each party. That’s down from 137 in 2002.
Such rankings are, of course, not perfect and are often criticized. But if they reflect any reality it’s hard to imagine taking a set of policies that are agreeable to those four moderates and then making tweaks and compromises necessary to get that up to the 218 votes need to pass a bill out of the House.