Harry Reid offers the nation a mephitic Senate health-care bill that retains the worst features of Nancy Pelosi’s creation and adds fresh horrors of its own: It will force Americans to finance abortions and jack up some Americans’ Medicare taxes by 34 percent. On paper, the House bill costs a little more than $1 trillion, the Senate bill a little less than $1 trillion; more realistic estimates, minus the congressional accounting chicanery, put the price tag of each closer to $2 trillion over the first ten years of implementation. With trillions of dollars on the line — along with the excellence of our health care and the energy of our economy — Americans’ eyes must turn to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who has the opportunity to stop this bill from going to the Senate floor for advancement. If there is only scant chance of that happening, that tells us something about the real commitment of these vaunted moderates and the price at which they may be bought off.
Lincoln is an Arkansas Democrat, and there would be a pleasing symmetry to her standing athwart the nationalization of American medicine, a project launched in earnest by another Arkansas Democrat, Bill Clinton, a decade and a half ago. Senator Lincoln, one of those moderate Democrats who are the subject of so much talk and the source of so little action, has expressed some hesitancy to advance Senator Reid’s bill. As well she might: Her Arkansas constituency will be hit particularly hard by a federal mandate that will require Americans to spend up to 9.8 percent of their total annual household income on insurance premiums or find themselves declared outlaws, subject to serious fines and other punishment at the hands of the federal government.
Senator Lincoln is joined in these concerns by two other prominent moderate Democrats, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who are rightly skeptical of this $1 trillion experiment (which, if it follows the financial path of Medicare and Medicaid, will end up being a multi-trillion-dollar experiment) and who represent many constituents who may not seek to outlaw abortion but will object deeply to Harry Reid’s strong-arming them into paying for it. That latter concern must also command the attention of Pennsylvania’s Sen. Robert Casey, who presents himself as a staunch pro-life Democrat in the tradition of his father. All of their constituents also appreciate that other pending Obama-administration priorities, such as immigration-reform efforts that will include an amnesty for illegal aliens, will pile costs onto this bill that are not yet accounted for. There is, at this time, a real need for health-care reform, but there is not a need for anything so sweeping, radical, and expensive as what Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi are trying to push through Congress.
If there remains such a thing as Democratic moderation, now is the time for Senators Lincoln, Nelson, and Landrieu to show their true colors. This is their hour: The polls find not only that Americans are broadly opposed to the Pelosi and Reid model of health-care reform but also that, for the first time in many years, Americans have come to believe that reforming our health-care finances is not a job for Washington. This is a fraught moment in our political history, to be sure, but it also is an encouraging one in that Americans are calling for less government involvement in the economy, whether in health insurance, banking, or building cars. Washington has overreached: Obama, Reid, and Pelosi seek to overreach farther still. But the politics are against them, as is the national mood. President Obama makes a good speech — he always makes a good speech — but on health care he is a toy soldier. With big, expensive, ungainly parts of his domestic agenda yet unaccomplished — global-warming “cap and trade” legislation, banking reform — accompanied by the threat of a double-dip recession, persistent high unemployment, and a war in Afghanistan that he does not seem to be quite on top of, President Obama is in no position to make unreasonable demands of the moderate Democrats whose support he will need for the rest of his presidency. This will be even more salient if his party finds its congressional majorities diminished in the 2010 elections.
Among the places that majority could be diminished is Arkansas, a state that is very Democratic but very conservative. (How conservative? Went for McCain-Palin, banned same-sex marriage with a measure that carried 74 percent of the vote, has a law on the books outlawing abortion should Roe v. Wade be overturned — that conservative.) There is no doubt that Senator Lincoln is more moderate than the typical Democrat; what is in doubt is whether that means anything. If the moderates meekly knuckle under to the most radical projects of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid Democrats, then they are simply insignificant. If Senator Lincoln and her confreres are sincere in their desire to see deep and wide improvements made to health-care legislation, then the time to act is now, by voting against sending Reid’s wreck to the floor for a debate. We hold out no great hope that they will do so, and that is unfortunate: This is not a bill that needs to be amended, but one that needs to be scrapped and replaced by modest, sensible reforms that address the real shortcomings of our health-care system, such as the insecurity and expense of decent insurance, without enacting a federal takeover of the medical economy. That is what “moderation” means, and the moderates ought to recognize as much.