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Philip Klein: CPAC emblematic of why conservatives lost health care debate

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Photo - WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 10:  Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Marriott Wardman Park February 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. Thousands of conservative activists are attending the annual gathering in the nation's capital.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 10: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Marriott Wardman Park February 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. Thousands of conservative activists are attending the annual gathering in the nation's capital. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If you want to understand why proponents of limited government keep losing the health care debate, look no further than this year's upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference.

Over the past several years, as the debate over President Obama's national health care law was raging, the largest annual gathering of conservatives held regular panel discussions on the topic. Not this year. Laura Rigas, a spokeswoman for the American Conservative Union (which runs CPAC), confirmed to me that although "health care and the associated budget-busting costs at the federal and state level will be addressed in a number of panels," there would be no panel dedicated exclusively to the health care issue.

"Obamacare was obviously huge over the past couple of years, but Obamacare is done," Rigas explained.

Done. It's precisely this attitude -- by no means exclusive to CPAC -- that has crippled the advancement of conservative health care solutions for decades.

The biggest conservative policy victories, such as the advancement of supply-side economics in the 1980s and welfare reform in the 1990s, came when conservative intellectuals and activists rallied around ideas at times when liberals didn't have compelling answers to important problems. But conservative activists often disregard health care as a liberal issue -- unlike taxes and guns -- and only become engaged when liberals attempt to advance big government solutions.

In 1993 and 1994, for instance, when the Clintons were pushing their national health care plan, the conservative movement rose up to successfully defeat it. But then, instead of taking advantage of the intervening 15 years to advance market-based solutions to health care, conservative activists largely ignored the issue.

A few scholars such as Sally Pipes, John Goodman, Grace-Marie Turner, David Hogberg and Greg Scandlen were consistently writing about how to foster the creation of a consumer-based medical system. But health care just didn't generate any passion at the grassroots level until Obama began his health care push. CPAC is not responsible for this reality, but the issues the conference chooses to focus on are certainly a reflection of the pulse of the conservative movement.

Though it's a struggle to come up with silver linings from the passage of the health care law, it seemed that, at least for a while, conservatives were becoming more engaged on the health care issue. But in hindsight, the interest in health care policy on the Right is looking more like a fad built around opposition to Obamacare.

In February 2009, at the outset of the Obama administration, the conference held a panel titled "Health Care: The Train Wreck Ahead." In February 2010, as Democrats were pushing toward final passage of health care legislation, the conference featured a panel named "Saving Freedom From ObamaCare: It Isn't Over Yet." The following year, with the law having passed, that season's CPAC health care panel was titled "Repealing Obamacare: In the States, In Courts, and In Congress." Last year, as the law made its way to the Supreme Court, the conference titled the health care panel "Obamacare: Why It's Unconstitutional and What Conservatives Need to Do."

Now that Obamacare has survived a Supreme Court challenge and the 2012 election, it's looking as if conservative activists are reverting back to their typical hibernation on the health care issue.

This is a big mistake. At some point in the future, liberals will be looking to build on Obamacare. Whenever conservatives point out problems with the law, liberals will counter that the problem is that the law left too much of the health care system in the hands of private insurers. Incrementally, liberals will seek to move the nation toward a true government-run, single-payer system.

And if conservatives spend the intervening years between now and then tuning out the health care issue, the liberals just may achieve their long-term goal.

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.

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