Politics & Policy

Obama’s Blessing in Disguise

Scott Brown's victory enables a presidential pivot on health reform.

President Obama doesn’t know it yet, but Scott Brown did him a huge favor. If, as expected, he becomes the next senator from Massachusetts; and if, as expected, his election dooms the Pelosi-Reid health-care-reform bill, Obama will have an opportunity to lay the entire fiasco at the feet of that troublesome Democratic duo. If he’s smart, he’ll take it.

Supporters of the Pelosi-Reid legislation argue that Democrats must forge ahead and do whatever it takes to pass a bill. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait put it, “Abandoning health care reform after they’ve already paid whatever political cost that comes from voting for it in both houses would be suicide.”

Maybe this holds true for members of Congress in purple districts who voted the wrong way. But not for Obama. Obama is up for election not in 2010, but in 2012. He has three years to distance himself from this debacle, and he will have more freedom of movement if he cuts his ties now and denies conservatives the large red target the Pelosi-Reid bill has become.

Why? Because the Pelosi-Reid health-care reform is objectively bad law. Mandates forcing individuals to buy coverage are hugely unpopular, even with the subsidies the bill would provide. Mandates forcing businesses to buy coverage for their employees would hit small and mid-size businesses hardest. There is no good time to saddle these businesses with additional costs and regulations, but right now is probably the worst time. More important, America’s reliance on employer-provided health insurance is one of the biggest problems with its health-care system. The third-party-payer problem drives the runaway cost of care. Meanwhile, Americans are often stuck with the jobs they have, fearful to strike out on their own and lose their health insurance.

The Pelosi-Reid legislation would not free us from this system; it would entrench it. It would exacerbate health-care-cost inflation by subsidizing insurance and expanding Medicaid. It would cut Medicare, not in a smart way that relies on competition to bring down costs, but by eliminating the private sector and relying on government’s power to dictate payment rates to doctors and hospitals. According to the bill’s own defenders, its other attempts at cost control amount to little more than a handful of pilot programs. And as if health-care-cost inflation weren’t bad enough, the Senate version of the bill includes an excise tax on health-insurance premiums that would, over time, hit an increasing number of middle-class premium payers — unless, of course, they belonged to a union, in which case the Democrats are hard at work carving out an exemption just for them.

As Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin explained recently in National Review, conservatives can’t wait to run against this bill in 2010. I am personally a little sad that it looks like it won’t pass. After studying how Republicans were able to repeal a similar set of “reforms” in Kentucky, I became convinced that Obamacare could be repealed and replaced with a better set of reforms. I actually think it would have been easier to get the right reforms in place as part of a package that repealed parts of Obamacare, because it will be years before Congress wants to touch health care again if the Pelosi-Reid legislation fails.

That would be unfortunate. The system really does need reforms such as the tax-law change John McCain proposed in 2008.

Another unfortunate aspect of the failure of the Pelosi-Reid legislation is that it would free Obama to do the “hard pivot” to jobs that, according to his aides, waits in the wings. In Obama-speak, “jobs bill” means “another stimulus package,” and judging from the bill that the House passed last month, the next stimulus package is likely to be as ineffective as the first, if not as costly.

At the same time, the public might welcome any sign that the president has turned his attention from fusing large chunks of the private sector to the government. The election of Brown provides Obama with an opportunity to abandon cap-and-trade, health-care reform, and other aspects of his domestic agenda that have proved to be tremendously unpopular. Remember: Bill Clinton also failed to pass a health-care-reform bill, yet he prospered as the administrator of a divided government and went on to a comfortable victory in 1996. The “hard pivot” Obama needs to make is to the center, and Tuesday’s results free him to make it.

– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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