Politics & Policy

Cross the River, Burn the Bridge

Obamacare is the fast-track to a permanent left-of-center political culture.

Last week, during a bit of banter on Fox News, my colleague Jonah Goldberg reminded me of something I’d all but forgotten. Last September, during his address to Congress on health care, Barack Obama declared: “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”

Dream on. The monstrous mountain of toxic pustules sprouting from greasy boils metastasizing from malign carbuncles that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve is not the last word in “health” “care,” but the first. It ensures that this is all we’ll be talking about, now and forever.

Government can’t just annex “one-sixth of the U.S. economy” (i.e., the equivalent of annexing the entire British or French economy, or annexing the entire Indian economy twice over) and then just say: “Okay, what’s next? On to cap-and-trade . . . ” Nations that governmentalize health care soon find themselves talking about little else.

In Canada, once the wait times for MRIs and hip surgery start creeping up over two years, the government distracts the citizenry with a Royal Commission appointed to study possible “reforms” which reports back a couple of years later usually with recommendations to “strengthen” the government’s “commitment” to every Canadian’s “right” to health care by renaming the Department of Health the Department of Health Services and abolishing the Agency of Health Administration and replacing it with a new Agency of Administrative Health Operations which would report to a reformed Council of Health Policy Administrative Coordination to be supervised by a streamlined Public Health Operations & Administration Assessment Bureau. This package of “reforms” would cost a mere 12.3 gazillion dollars and usually keeps the lid on the pot until the wait times for MRIs start creeping up over three years.

The other alternative is what the British did earlier this year: They created an exciting new “Patient’s Bill of Rights,” promising every Briton the “right” to hospital treatment within 18 weeks. Believe it or not, that distant deadline shimmering woozily in the languid desert haze can be oddly reassuring if you’ve ever visited a Scottish emergency room on a holiday weekend. And, if the four-and-a-half months go by and you still haven’t been treated, you get your (tax) money back? Ah, no. But there is a free helpline you can call which will give you continuously updated estimates on which month your operation has been rescheduled for. I mention these not as a preview of the horrors to come, but because I’ve come to the bleak conclusion that U.S.-style “health” “reform” is going to be far worse.

We were told we had to do it because of the however many millions of uninsured, yet this bill will leave some 25 million Americans uninsured. On the other hand, millions of young fit healthy Americans in their first jobs who currently take the entirely reasonable view that they do not require health insurance at this stage in their lives will be forced to pay for coverage they neither want nor need. On the other other hand, those Americans who’ve done the boring responsible grown-up thing and have health plans Harry Reid determines to be excessively “generous” will be subject to punitive taxes up to 40 percent. On the other other other hand, if you’re the member of a union which enjoys privileged relations with Commissar Reid you’ll be exempt from that 40 percent shakedown. On the other other other other hand, if you’re already enjoying government health care, well, you’re 83 years old and, let’s face it, it’s hardly worth us giving you that surgery for the minimal contribution you make to society, so in the cause of extending government health care to millions of people who don’t currently get it we’re going to ration it for those currently entitled to it.

Looking at the millions of Americans it leaves uninsured, and the millions it leaves with worse treatment and reduced access, and the millions it makes pay significantly more for their current health care, one can only marvel at Harry Reid’s genius: government health care turns out to be all government and no health care. Adding up the zillions of new taxes and bureaucracies and regulations it imposes on the citizenry, one might almost think that was the only point of the exercise.

That’s why I believe America’s belated embrace of government health care is going to be far more expensive and disastrous than the Euro-Canadian models. Whatever one’s philosophical objection to the Canadian health system, it is, broadly, fair: Unless you’re a cabinet minister or a bigtime hockey player, you’ll enjoy the same equality of crappiness and universal lack of access that everybody else does. But, even before it’s up-and-running, Pelosi-Reid-Obamacare is an impenetrable thicket of contradictory boondoggles, shameless payoffs, and arbitrary shakedowns.

That’s why Nebraska’s grotesque zombie senator Ben Nelson is the perfect poster boy for the new arrangements, and not just another so-called Blue Dog Democrat spayed into compliance by a massive cash injection. There is no reason on earth why Nebraska should be the only state in this Union to have every dime of its increased Medicare tab picked up by the 49 others. So either that privilege will be extended to all, or to favored others, or its asymmetry will be balanced by other precisely targeted lollipops hither and yon. Whatever happens, it’s a dagger at the heart of American federalism, just as the bill’s magisterial proclamation that the Independent Medicare Advisory Board can only be abolished by a two-thirds vote of the Senate strikes at one of the most basic principles of a free society — that no parliament can bind its successors.

These details are obnoxious not merely in and of themselves but because they tell us the truth about where we’re headed: Think of the way almost every Big Government project bursts its bodice and winds up bigger and more bloated than its creators allegedly foresaw. In this instance, the stays come pre-loosened, and studded with loopholes. Because the Democrat operators — the Nancy Pelosis and Barney Franks — know that what matters is to get something, anything across the river, and then burn the bridge behind you.

My Republican friends often seem to miss the point in this debate: The so-called “public option” is not Page 3,079, Section (f), Clause VII. The entire bill is a public option — because that’s where it leads, remorselessly. The so-called “death panel” is not Page 2,721, Paragraph 19, Sub-section (d), but again the entire bill — because it inserts the power of the state between you and your doctor, and in effect assumes jurisdiction over your body. As the savvier Dems have always known, once you’ve crossed the Rubicon, you can endlessly re-reform your health reform until the end of time, and all the stuff you didn’t get this go-round will fall into place, and very quickly.

As I’ve been saying for over a year now, “health care” is the fast-track to a permanent left-of-center political culture. The unlovely Democrats on public display in the week before Christmas may seem like just a bunch of jelly-spined opportunists, grubby wardheelers and rapacious kleptocrats, but the smarter ones are showing great strategic clarity. Alas for the rest of us, Euro-style government on a Harry Reid/Chris Dodd/Ben Nelson scale will lead to ruin.

Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is author of America Alone. © 2009 Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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