Politics & Policy

Snake Oil

President Obama’s press conference Wednesday night offered an ideal encapsulation of the Democrats’ case for their health-care-reform proposals: outlandish promises about benefits and patently dishonest denials of the costs. He said essentially all of the uninsured would be covered, the insured could keep their existing coverage and would be guaranteed to keep it if they lost or changed jobs, the quality of care would rise, waste and fraud would be slashed, the deficit would decline, and no one would have to pay a price for all this except a few millionaires. Oh, and by the way, the plan would also “keep government out of health-care decisions.”

If the president can persuade the American public of all that, then maybe we don’t even need medical care — we can just have him tell us all we’re perfectly healthy and we’ll go on our way.

But in the end, the president does not in fact seem capable of persuading the public that he and congressional Democrats have found the magic cure-all for our health-care ills. Increasingly, the American people aren’t buying what Obama is selling. Support for his approach to health care has begun to fall below 50 percent in recent polls, as worries about cost, harming the quality and availability of health care, displacing millions who are satisfied with their insurance, increasing the tax burden on employers in the midst of a recession, and creating an enormous new entitlement are adding up.

These worries are justified. The cost of the health-care bills now coming out of the key congressional committees is staggering, and the Congressional Budget Office has said these bills will not reduce health-care-cost inflation in the long run, so that even the trillion-dollar ten-year cost estimates do not begin to describe the full burdens taxpayers will assume. The notion, again repeated by the president, that anyone who is happy with his health insurance now will be able to keep it is patently at odds with every study and analysis of the Democrats’ proposals, all of which foresee many millions displaced. And even the president himself seems no longer to believe that only the rich will pay a price: His language Wednesday night was carefully calibrated. He said reform should not be “completely shouldered on the backs of middle-class families,” or “primarily funded through taxing middle-class families.”

But the greatest weakness of the Democrats’ plans, and the most important concern regarding their implementation, has to do with the rationing of care and the centralization of treatment decisions. While President Obama claimed, preposterously, that the proposals he supports would limit the government’s role, he also made clear that decisions about the availability of care — especially for the elderly at first, but for all in the long run — would be made by a panel of experts in Washington, setting one-size-fits-all rules that would govern doctors’ decisions. This was held up as a model of efficiency, but it is a recipe for disaster, as the public seems increasingly to understand.

The next few weeks are clearly crucial to the fate of these misbegotten plans. Obamacare is in trouble, but it is by no means down for the count. The Democrats control both houses of Congress quite comfortably and are keen to avoid embarrassing their new president or appearing feckless and divided. They are trying to rush a bill through in the hope that no one pays too much attention to the details and that they can claim victory before the smoke has cleared.

But the politics of health care has clearly changed for the better in the past month. Passage of an Obama-style plan is now by no means inevitable, and the more time passes the greater the obstacles to passage appear. Republicans should make it clear that they do not intend to abet the approach the Democrats are contemplating, and that better options are available which would harness consumer choice to control costs and therefore to broaden access to health insurance.

President Obama and the Democrats have given Washington Republicans the perfect opportunity to illustrate for the public what it means to stand for fiscal responsibility, economic growth, individual liberty, and free markets, and how that combination can also point the way to creative and constructive policy solutions. The public is growing wary of the Democrats’ approach and eager to be shown a better way. Republicans should oblige: Stop Obamacare, and make the case for conservative health-care reform.

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