Virtue’s Last Stand

By Brett Dowling (Board Member)

The “Skinny Healthcare” bill today was destroyed by Sen. John McCain’s decisive vote, dealing a potentially-fatal blow to the Republicans’ troubled Repeal (and Replace?) project. McCain’s actions have been heralded as “heroic” and “a victory”—mostly by the left. But let’s be clear: there should be absolutely no celebration. Not yet at least.

What McCain has offered is in fact an opportunity—and from my view, one of the last opportunities we may ever receive of this nature—to return to what he himself called “normal order” in our Senate. If this opportunity is addressed correctly by our politicians, then McCain’s decision truly will be an act of heroism in a sense so much bigger than this healthcare bill alone. But if handled incorrectly, McCain’s act has the ability to thrust our politics to an even deeper, darker place.

Let me explain myself by talking a bit about an old-fashioned idea: virtue.

Virtue has fallen out of favor amongst the commentariat and even amongst academia in recent times. It admittedly reeks of Victorian-era banality, and certainly does not hold the emotional appeal of the tribal identity politics that (so unfortunately) dominate today’s political culture.

But to me, virtue has and always will be the most important link between the individual and his society. Virtue is how we solve the collective action problems of our coexistence. It’s the voice that says it’s wrong to take ten “free samples” at a grocery store giveaway. It’s the voice that says it’s wrong to cut a line when no one else is paying attention. The principle underlying virtue is that while it might be best for you personally to exploit a given social situation, if everyone did so, you would all be much worse off. Its absence from common discourse has been felt.

The Senate has historically been, in my mind, a shining beacon of virtue. It was designed to be above the fray of “popular” politics and as such regularly endorsed bipartisan legislation. Senators often have put aside short-term political gain, often accepting compromise for the long-term betterment of America. This was virtue at its finest.

But the problem with virtue is that it’s a social game in which one or two “impostor events” can undermine the whole virtuous equilibrium, throwing it into a race to the bottom. The precise point at which this unravelling occurred in our political context is ill-defined, but I do think it began with the events surrounding Obamacare; whether it was McConnell relenting to work with Obama or the Democrats’ ultimate party-line passage of Obamacare will be a matter of your politics. But what is clear is at that point in time the short term goal of partisan “victory” became more important than reaching some sort of sustainable consensus. And, ever since, Washington has descended into a vicious cycle of gridlock, division, and unproductiveness: neither side has much incentive to sacrifice short-term partisan “victory” in favor of longer term agreement so long as they know the other side has similar incentives and will go for the short-term victory at their expense. And so norms were eroded, rules were amended, and bridges were burned to the point where we now struggle just to hold run-of-the-mill confirmation hearings, let alone pass meaningful legislation.

To get back to my main point: McCain, perhaps given perspective by his recent diagnosis, has made a sacrifice that might allow us to return to the virtuous practices of regular order, rather than this vicious, destructive cycle we have found ourselves in for the past eight years. He has sacrificed his own political fortunes—and, indirectly, those of his political party—in offering Democrats the ability to meaningfully work with the Republicans to fix Obamacare.

If the Democrats elect to continue to offer only platitudes on fixing Obamacare—so desperate to recapture power and the “optics” of the whole thing—then McCain’s actions will all be in vain. Republicans will undoubtedly pay a political price at the 2018 midterms (good for the Democrats!), but you can be sure that there will be GOP primary challengers who are even angrier and who are even more willing to destroy what remain of the Senate’s norms in order to score short-term victories against their opponents (think: Trump). This is good, in the end, for no one.

If, however, the Democrats are now willing to genuinely and meaningfully engage in fixing healthcare (a sentiment that has so far been noticeably absent from that party), then we might get more than a better healthcare bill. A bipartisanship agreement on such a hot-button issue would signal that both parties are once again willing to return to political calculations that extend past the next two years, and we might return to a more sustainable equilibrium.

As for now, there is absolutely nothing to celebrate. Celebration now is an endorsement of short-sighted, partisan, tribal politics. Those on social media who claim that McCain’s actions save “millions of lives” may be partially correct, but they neglect to recognize the millions of people suffering under some of the great flaws of Obamacare (if you don’t think it is flawed, then you suffer from the same sort of ideological blindness that the Republican’s exhibited in constructing their bill). Rather than rest on whatever fleeting laurels we might imagine, we need to seize this rare opportunity to act decisively Tand collectively.

Remember when you called your Senator, Republican or Democrat, to vote against the Repeal and Replace plan? Tomorrow, I implore you to call them again and demand that they immediately start working towards a new, bipartisan solution. And, I implore you to keep calling them until they actually get something done! Then, and only then, can we celebrate—and at that time, all together.