Obamacare’s apologists and their allies in the mainstream press have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy dissecting the supposed hypocrisy of conservatives on the individual mandate. They are indignant that the GOP is now in lockstep opposition to the mandate even though two decades ago some Republican senators — most of whom have long since departed from the scene — supported the concept in theory in large part to fight against even heavier-handed government intrusion into the health sector by President Clinton. How transparently political and outrageous of them!
But it’s hard to take these attacks seriously when those launching them systematically ignore the much more important, immediate, and consequential flip-flopping on this issue by their health-care hero, President Obama.
The president’s contortions on the individual mandate didn’t take place two decades ago and didn’t evolve over a period of years. He changed his position abruptly in early 2009 after he was elected president, just months after taking a hardline position on the opposing side during the entirety of the presidential campaign. And it’s a safe bet that, if the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare makes it convenient for him, he will change his position yet again. Indeed, if recent history is any guide, he will do so with nary a peep from an adoring press.
The story of the president’s . . . evolution . . . on this issue begins in early 2008. Then-senator Barack Obama was locked in a bitter struggle with his Senate rival, Hillary Clinton, for the Democratic presidential nomination. On most issues, there was no discernible space between them, with both staking out traditional liberal positions on the various issues of import to Democratic primary voters.
But on health care, Senator Obama saw an opportunity. He had put out a health-care plan that checked all of the boxes of the standard Democratic approach to reform: expand Medicaid, provide new subsidies for insurance coverage, require employers to offer plans, and establish a new “public option” modeled on Medicare. But he left off of his list one crucial item: the individual mandate.
This was no small matter. Without the mandate, the Obama plan would not be considered a “universal coverage” plan in Democratic circles, as analysts, including those at the Congressional Budget Office, would expect large numbers of Americans to decline to sign up for coverage in a voluntary system. Party elites and activists would regard this as a major, perhaps even fatal, flaw. Nothing in the Democratic catechism is more sacred than the goal of “universal coverage” in health care.
So Senator Obama was taking a risk in not toeing the party line. But it was a calculated risk. He knew from polling data that, despite its popularity among party elites and left-leaning health-care analysts, the individual mandate was far less popular among Democratic primary voters. Here was a policy difference with Senator Clinton that he could exploit to his advantage in the primaries.
And exploit it he did. In ads, mailings, and debates, Senator Obama in the crucial months of the campaign hammered Senator Clinton for forcing people who couldn’t afford premiums to pay them anyway or face sanctions from the federal government. And, from Senator Clinton’s indignant reaction, it’s safe to say the attacks hit the mark.
Now, fast-forward to late 2008 and early 2009, as Senator Obama was on the road to becoming President Obama. The November election could not have gone better for the Democrats. Obama won his race against John McCain handily, and the incoming 111th Congress would have commanding Democratic majorities in both houses, giving the president essentially free rein to enact a sweeping agenda. Democratic activists across the board were salivating at the prospect of using those majorities to finally push through a “universal coverage” health-care plan.