Even though he’s 72, I never really think of John McCain as old, at least until he is forced to discuss domestic policy. It’s not entirely his fault. When forced to make a nod to less manly subjects such as health care and education and other items not related to the war or foreign policy, his entire party’s domestic policy offerings have changed little since Newt Gingrich was king of the Capitol. Case in point: Last night, McCain said he opposed Obama’s “health-care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor.”
It’s the same argument Republicans used in 1994 to kill off the Clinton health plan. But much has changed since the debut of Harry and Louise 14 years ago, and the recycled line seems hugely out of touch with reality. This past year, my family has been forced to switch health plans three times, and every one of these plans has not only a different set of rules, gatekeepers, and attendant paperwork, but also of approved doctors. How long can Republicans continue to insist that a government-sponsored plan would be worse than this? Government doesn’t have a monopoly on bureaucracy. Some of my health care plans make the Post Office look efficient.
Likewise, the candidate’s embrace of school choice, a vintage issue raised in virtually every GOP convention speech, is somewhat baffling. We here in the District have been the guinea pigs for Republican school choice policy for years now. In 1996, a Republican Congress forced the District to fund an explosion of charter schools to create more “competition,” the idea being that innovative new charters would force the rest of the public schools to improve and innovate to retain students, as if schools were just like Best Buy and Circuit City fighting for market share.
Today, District parents have more choices—bad ones. Most of the city’s charter schools are as bad or worse than the regular public schools. Less than 30 percent have met the required benchmarks for progress under the No Child Left Behind law, another empty school choice vehicle. That law gives kids in failing schools the right to go elsewhere. In the District, virtually every public high school is failing, so as with most places, District parents are mostly stuck with their neighborhood schools because there is nowhere else to go. No surprise then, that in a system with more than 50,000 students, only 34 kids from designated failing schools applied to transfer somewhere else.
School choice is not a public policy but a luxury, one reserved for rich people, who can agonize between private or parochial, Reggio or Montessori, just like bureaucrat-free health care these days is the province of the wealthy and lifetime members of U.S. Senate. If McCain the Maverick really wants to start a new Republican revolution, he’s first going to have to slough off the failed remnants of the last one.