The year was 2003. I was a young tadpole of a conservative activist experiencing life under the first Republican president I could remember. President Reagan had so badly wanted to roll back the Great Society. Rather than continue his work and build upon welfare reform of 1996, President George W. Bush sought to grow the existing entitlement state. There was a lot of confusion at the time as to what it meant to be a conservative.
Amidst the push for greater federal control over the private economy, President Bush proposed a prescription drug entitlement program for seniors, which later became Medicare Part D. Rather than keeping the promise to bend the prices and taxpayer costs of Medicare and Medicaid downward, this program added a new layer of entitlement, which now costs roughly $100 billion a year and has further distorted drug prices.
At the time, there was a brave young conservative backbencher in the House named Mike Pence. He helped lead the conservative opposition to this bill. It was unheard of at the time for members of the president’s party to oppose a signature agenda item, yet Pence and 18 others voted against the bill, coming up just one vote shy of defeating it together with Democrats. [Yes, just because Democrats vote against a program, it doesn’t make it good.] Meanwhile, the much-vaunted champion of free markets, Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. (F, 51%) voted for it.
Speaking out against the conference report on November 20, Pence called it “the largest new entitlement since 1965.” He quoted the Wall Street Journal editorial page, of all sources, (yes, there was a time when principle trumped personal relationships!) rightly predicting that the program would “trade certain spending for speculative reform.”
“They conclude that Republicans are offering the certainty of trillions in new entitlements in turn for a mere promise of future reform,” said Pence at the time. “That's too expensive a gamble for principled conservatives to support.”
“Earlier that year, on July 26, Pence noted that following:
Let us not in this Congress today sow the seeds to destroy the foundation of a free market system by creating a universal drug benefit in Medicare. The answer is the reforms the president called for, giving Americans the same choices that members of congress have. It is not to create a massive, new federal entitlement.
In June of that year, Pence told the media, "We simply didn't come here to increase entitlements and to create bigger government. We came here to make government smaller."
It was this principled stand that greatly inspired me to pursue a career in conservative politics to try to roll back the immoral assault on free markets, liberty, and true fairness.
Before we fast-forward to the appalling change in attitude from the vice president, it’s important to examine the context of the time just to see how far to the left Republicans have moved in less than one generation.
Prescription drugs accounts for less than 10% of healthcare spending. The program Mike Pence was lamenting only applied to seniors. It is nothing compared to Obamacare and RINOcare. Moreover, conservatives would pine to return to 2003 levels of the welfare and entitlement state — a level then-Congressman Pence deemed unacceptable. Mandatory spending (adjusted for inflation) on welfare and entitlements has increased 67 percent since 2003. During one of his speeches in 2003, Pence lamented that “Medicare currently costs 7 1/2 times what this Congress said it would cost when they invented it.” Guess what? He was referring to the $295 billion cost of Medicare in 2003. It now costs $705 billion and is projected to cost over $10 trillion over the next 10 years. Overall, mandatory spending is projected to cost $34 trillion.
On top of that we got Obamacare, which took over the entire health care market for all ages. It was so destructive and costly to the private sector, the consumer, and the taxpayer that we swore this time would be different. As a party, we ran three elections on breaking from our past tradition of coming to peace with new entitlements. This one would be gone.
Sadly, not only have Trump, Pence, and Ryan doubled down on Obamacare, but they will precipitate a death spiral of regulations and subsidies without the individual mandate to prop it up. The bill they introduced will create an entire new entitlement for middle and middle-upper income Americans of ALL ages for the entirety of health care. Contrast that to the prescription drug entitlement for seniors Pence so vociferously opposed.2003 was child’s play.
How ironic that Pence and the Wall Street Journal editorial page lamented immediate entitlements for unicorn promises of future structural reforms! That is exactly what they are doing — enshrining and exacerbating the existing regulatory structure together with a new entitlement and the promise of some minor reforms to Medicaid … after 2020. The system will be long dead or bailed out by then.
There is a broader lesson to this historical juxtaposing. It’s the triumph of socialism, or what Margaret Thatcher referred to as the socialist “ratchet effect.” The ratchet effect described the timeless phenomenon in which liberal policies were only expanded during Labor rule but never reversed during the rule of moderate Tories. The same can be said of our political system between the truculent and effective Democrats and the feckless Republicans.
Look how far we have come on “social” issues. Mike Pence, as governor of Indiana, couldn’t even hold the line on social libertarianism to pass a religious freedom law — a line Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. (F, 2%) held just one generation ago when he sponsored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on a national level. Federal courts now mandate that Christians service homosexual weddings with their private property and no Republican even bats an eyelash. The courts redefine human sexuality and mandate transgender jihadism on us, and Republicans just don’t care. Indeed, the last vestige of social conservatism and even social libertarianism with the Republican Party is dead.
But at least we are fiscal conservatives, right?
Not a chance. We can’t even find a party that is willing to support some sector of health care remaining unencumbered by price-hiking regulations and market-distorting, dependency-inducing subsidies.
This is all born out of the binary idolatry of party politics in which one party is so extreme, immoral, and illogical while the other party is sufficing to remain one or two tranches to the right just to perpetuate the scam of electoral party politics. As the Democrats drift further into the bowls of economic and cultural Marxism, Republicans come right along with them. Rather than using timeless, fixed, and principled conservatism as the default baseline, they use the given Democrat position of the day as the default baseline and then craft their policies ever slightly to the right so they are always relatively conservative — even though they have long crossed the abyss of statism in real terms.
In his worst nightmares, Mike Pence of 2003 would never recognize a Democrat Party agreeing to such failed statism, much less a Republican Party legitimizing it.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.