Indulge me if you will, and join me in imagining that Obamacare has taken the calamitous path of the Hindenburg and ended up as little more than a smoldering warning against hubris. Imagine, that is, that enrollment rates have remained dangerously low; that the risk pools consist largely of the elderly and the sick; that the insurance companies, unable to operate on the magical thinking of which the White House is so fond, are being forced either to get out of the market completely or to raise premiums dramatically; and that skittish Democrats have started to run away — first calling weakly for fixes, then hinting at more, and then barely resisting the temptation to follow the trail of the pitchforks and nullify the president’s signature achievement. Imagine, in other words, that things are bad.
Now answer me this: If such a scenario were actually to come to pass — and, of course, it most certainly has not as of yet — how serious a failure will we judge it to be? Will we see it as a hiccup? Will we claim that it is typical for a second term? Or will we consider it to be a calamity of historical proportions? Personally, I would plump for the lattermost: In my view, if Obamacare were to fail hard, it could well come to be seen as the most catastrophic domestic-policy enterprise of the last century.
I do not say that flippantly. The last 100 years have certainly thrown up a few turkeys — Prohibition, the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, and the short-lived Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988 all come to mind — and yet Obamacare stands out as being potentially even worse because, as David French recently noted, it has the disadvantage of being unprecedently partisan. This, after all, is a law that bears a president’s name. This is to say that if it fails, not only will it hurt a swath of innocent citizens — as many other messy initiatives have — but it will also discredit for a generation the worldview of its architects. And this, as Joe Biden might say, is a “big f***ing deal.”
Now, even in the extremely gloomy case that I outlined above, it is unlikely that its collapse would prove as deleterious to national harmony as was, say, Prohibition. But while the Eighteenth Amendment was a fiasco per se, its failure was at least broad-based. Prohibition boasted overwhelming public support, bipartisan enthusiasm, and a trans-regional acquiescence that was rare for the era. In the House, Democrats voted 146–64 in favor, while Republicans voted 137–62 in favor; in the Senate, Democrats voted 36–12 in favor, while Republicans voted 29–8 in favor. And 46 of the 48 states voted to ratify (two abstained). When the Depression made Prohibition unpopular, the parties were split as to what they might do about the crisis, with Herbert Hoover famously vacillating and FDR pouncing on the chance to run on a platform of repeal. Yet the manner in which the experiment had been originally agreed upon meant that one could not draw easy conclusions as to who, ultimately, was to blame. America had been swept up in hysteria, and it had frankly gotten it wrong — not because of the folly of one team, but because of the ugly thinking of a regrettable moment in time. Obamacare does not enjoy this luxury.
Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous National Industrial Recovery Act was a spectacular bust, too, failing as it did to deliver on the quixotic promise that an unprecedented centralization of control would revive a moribund economy and usher in a swift recovery and full employment. But, although Congress quickly soured on the plan when the results proved elusive and businesses started to squeal, the NIRA was ultimately overturned neither by the people nor by the legislative branch, but instead in piecemeal fashion by the Supreme Court. Perhaps more important, its champion remained deeply popular — popular enough to stay in the White House for another eleven years and to persuade the court to overrule many of its prior decisions. Yes, the NIRA was a disaster. But not as we know it. And Obama is no FDR.
What of the third candidate, the abortive Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988? Does this serve as a useful analogue? Well, yes, insofar as it demonstrates that health-care laws can be repealed. But otherwise? No, not really. The MCCA was passed with roaring cross-party support — 328–72 in the House of Representatives, 86–11 in the Senate, and signed by President Reagan — and it was repealed in exactly the same way. Within months, the act proved to be a bust, provoking a bipartisan backlash that came, per the White House’s lovely phrase, in “tidal waves of immense proportion.” So powerful was that wave that, just 16 months after it had been entered onto the books, lawmakers killed the measure 360–66 in the House and 99–0 in the Senate. Another Republican president, George H. W. Bush, signed the repeal. The MCCA was a disaster, sure. But, like Prohibition, it was one that could not be blamed on a particular party; and, like the NIRA, it was one that was never allowed to do too much harm. No dice.
Somewhere, deep down, the president and his allies must know that there could be a serious price to pay for their steadfast support of their pet project, and that if Obamacare’s star falls spectacularly then their stars fall spectacularly in sympathy. In various permutations, wholesale health-care reform has been proposed and rejected for a century now, and most often abandoned because the citizenry was more easily convinced by the doubters than by the idealists.
To find a time in which the central agenda of one party has been as thoroughly discredited as the Democrats’ may be if Obamacare collapses into itself, one probably has to go back to the second decade of the 20th century. As the election of 1920 approached, Americans found that they had grown exhausted and disturbed by the egregious domestic agenda that their president’s utopian internationalism had gradually imposed. Woodrow Wilson’s “war socialism,” which involved stern rationing, crippling censorship, and a thoroughgoing distaste for the individualism that had marked America’s rise, proved to be unpopular enough to render Warren Harding’s promise of a “return to normalcy” as music to voters’ ears. In 1920, Harding won 60 percent of the vote — 37 states to his opponent’s eleven — and he used his mandate to effectively repeal the Wilson era and to discredit the Democratic party for a decade.
Obamacare has not yet reached the crisis levels that I imagined at the outset, and, given how much rides on it, it is unlikely to be allowed to do so. Indeed, even if it does, the scale of the fallout is an open question. Americans in 2013 are more divided, more tribal, and less politically flexible than they were in 1920, which means that the consequences of abject failure are perhaps less severe now than has typically been the case. Nevertheless, the president’s bravado must have its limits, and he must at times survey the scene and wonder what he has unleashed. The public pronouncements of faith will continue, of course, but they must now be ringing less and less true in the ears of their purveyors. And, as the days go on and the problem appears inexorably worse, the growing doubts must be forcing the team that has spent the better part of five years riding the glory days of a far-off inaugural campaign to awaken in the night in a cold sweat and, in the privacy of their own beds, wonder in horror, “What if?”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.