Bait-and-Switch Liberalism
Obamacare and the politics of deception

Selling Obamacare in 2009



Liberals rely on bait-and-switch tactics because they fear the results of describing their agenda clearly and candidly to voters, who can’t handle the truth. Even an elementary truth, such as the proposition that improving health care will cost money rather than save money, must be denied over and over, lest don’t-tread-on-me rubes start asking awkward questions about how much improving health care is going to cost and where the money will come from. Once a policy such as Obamacare is enacted and implemented, making the switch means admitting the obvious, and then claiming it’s so obvious — “everyone always knew” it would cost money and disrupt existing health-care arrangements — that it doesn’t really qualify as a switch. The villains in this story are not the liberals who spoke incontestable untruths when political circumstances called for telling people what they wanted to hear. The villains are conservatives who complain about the deceits by commission and omission.

As Obama’s diffidence about raising taxes suggests, however, bait-and-switch liberalism poses difficulties of its own. Once people have been accustomed to expecting benefits, they can be counted on to demand more of them. This is the basis for New Republic editor Noam Scheiber’s defense of Obamacare against liberals who complain America really needs a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system. Obamacare’s virtue is that it’s a “deceptively sneaky way” to hasten the arrival of single-payer, he says, since its shortcomings will create an “organized constituency” with “a whole set of grievances to get exercised about.” The hysterical, prevaricating tea-party zealots who denounced Obamacare as a step to something much bigger were basically right, in other words.

People can be relied on to demand more government benefits without prodding, but not to demand the taxes those benefits will require. What the people most need to hear is also what liberal opinion- and lawmakers need to avoid telling them: Benefits correspond to burdens, so higher benefits will require heavier burdens. Liberalism has advanced by relying on people to get the hint, without the vulgar necessity of anyone’s spelling it out. Social insurance payroll taxes, for example, grew from 2 percent of earned income in 1937 to 15.3 percent today (16.2 percent for families making more than $250,000) because cutting benefits was unthinkable, which made increasing taxes, some two dozen times, the only realistic, pragmatic choice. But there are only 100 percentage points of anything, which means the politics of raising payroll taxes from 15.3 percent to 20 or 25 percent will be much more difficult than going from 2 percent to 15.3.

The keys to bait-and-switch liberalism are: a) serial responsibility, so that the people who do the baiting are not the ones who do the switching; and b) plausible deniability, so that those still on the scene who did the baiting can claim, if anyone asks, that they never anticipated or intended the subsequent switching. Either the welfare state will need to be scaled back, or taxes will need to be raised on Americans making less — much less — than $250,000, but those unpleasant necessities will be confronted on some future president’s watch.

Similarly, the first Supreme Court decision to uphold affirmative action in private employment, Steelworkers v. Weber (1979), saw the majority argue that the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s fundamental concern was with the “plight of the Negro in our economy” and “the problem of opening opportunities for Negroes.” That being the case, the law’s prohibition of racial discrimination in employment practices gave no protection to white employees who were denied advancement opportunities given to blacks with less seniority.

A dissenting opinion by Justice William Rehnquist quoted two of the senators (Clifford Case, a New Jersey Republican, and Joseph Clark, a Pennsylvania Democrat) who guided the bill to passage. In a memorandum refuting those senators who said the bill would result in preferential treatment for racial minorities, they stated that the sections concerned with employment “would have no effect on established seniority rights. . . . [An employer] would not be obliged — or indeed permitted — to fire whites in order to hire Negroes, or to prefer Negroes for future vacancies, or, once Negroes are hired, to give them special seniority rights at the expense of the white workers hired earlier.” Both men were out of politics by the time Weber was decided. Hubert Humphrey, the senator who promised to eat the pages of the bill if anyone could show it would authorize discrimination against whites, had died the year before.

The interesting and prospectively important thing about the speed with which Obamacare’s contradictions have become apparent is that the executive and legislators crucial to its enactment — Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi, in particular — are still in office. The politicians responsible for the switching, that is, are the same ones who did the baiting, not their successors. “At the end of the day,” President Obama recently told The New Yorker, “we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” But the Obama paragraph will not be finished for almost three more years. Republicans will do themselves and their country a service by urging voters to ponder the contrast between the sentences about Obamacare that appeared early in the paragraph, and the very different ones being written today.

— William Voegeli, a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, is the author of The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion, to be published this year. This article was adapted from the March 10, 2014, issue of National Review.