What Do We Disagree About When We Debate Public Policy?

Noam Scheiber on political polarization:

I happen to agree with this sentiment. But, if it’s going to have much content, it’s the beginning of a discussion, not the end of one. After all, the reason the country is so polarized is that we disagree pretty strongly about what would strengthen our democracy (say, a richer social safety net versus greater reliance on the free market and individual responsibility). In fact, it’s the intensity with which we disagree on these questions that made it so easy for each side to fit the Tucson shooting into its existing account of what ails us.

I’m drawn to that argument, but I’m not sure it stands up to much scrutiny. Consider the health care debate. I didn’t really hear congressional Republicans calling for increased reliance on the free market. Did they talk about repealing the 2003 Medicare expansion? Did they argue for eliminating SCHIP? Did they push repeal of continuity of coverage regulations? Did they take up my pet cause of letting dental hygenists clean teeth without giving dentists a piece of the action? They certainly didn’t push to repeal the rule that hospitals need to provide care to the indigent. Indeed, I often heard Republicans asserting that the most popular elements of the Affordable Care Act—most notably a ban on refusing coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions—could and should somehow just be severed from more controversial aspects of the law.

Or consider public opinion:

Expensive benefit programs that account for nearly half of all federal spending enjoy widespread support, the poll found. Only 20 percent supported paring Social Security retirement benefits while a mere 23 supported cutbacks to the Medicare health-insurance program.

George W Bush substantially expanded the federal government’s commitment to health care and K-12 education, yet liberals were absolutely convinced he wanted to roll back 100 years of welfare state expansion. TARP gave Barack Obama a once-a-century opportunity to transform the American economy through state control over the commanding heights, an opportunity he deliberately declined (taking a lot of shit from his base in the interim) due to the sincere belief of his team that doing so wouldn’t be in the interests of the United States. What’s interesting to me is that we have a kind of furious partisan debate despite the fact that we don’t see large disagreements about the basic principles of welfare state capitalism.