Barack Obama rose to prominence after his thunderously unifying message at the 2004 Democratic Convention. The theme of effacing the political and cultural differences between red and blue states carried him through the 2008 election.
It turned out to be as unrepresentative a campaign as FDR running on balancing the budget in 1932 or George W. Bush touting a humble foreign policy in 2000. Obama, the erstwhile unifier, has set up a fierce ideological struggle over the direction of the country that will rage through 2010 and 2012: Will America make its peace with European-style social democracy, or will it continue to stand out among other advanced Western nations in its relatively robust economic freedom?
Health-care reform is a proxy war in this larger conflict of visions. Obama could have finessed the difference, with incremental steps toward greater government involvement in a health-care sector that is already only half private. The most popular short-term talking points for Obama’s reform — keeping children on their parents’ policies until age 26, minimizing the doughnut hole in the Medicare prescription-drug program, etc. — would have passed the Senate with 65 or 70 votes.
But Obama wanted more. Liberals believe the history of progress is written with the extension of the social-welfare state. Bringing more people within its ambit fulfills the promise of America, just like the civil-rights laws of the 1960s. They would have betrayed themselves had they failed to pass a skein of new regulations and an entitlement program achieving universal coverage.
They did it only by ignoring public opinion, as well as the loss of their 60-vote majority in the Senate in what amounted to a referendum on health-care reform in Massachusetts. House Democrats acted in the spirit of a self-sacrificing revolutionary vanguard. Isolated within the country, opposed by a bipartisan coalition, likely to sustain deep losses from their vote, Nancy Pelosi’s 219 gambled that their audacious act would change the country irrevocably.
Their bet is that American history is unidirectional — once a system of government benefits is established, it can never be revoked. There are two problems with this otherwise sensible wager: 1) The important benefits in Obamacare won’t be established until 2014, and Democrats have stirred up an intense, broad-based opposition well in advance; and 2) historic inevitability often goes awry.
The smart set in the 1970s predicted convergence between the United States and the Soviet Union. The opposite happened. Our system became freer and the Soviets collapsed as part of what author James Bennett calls “the great U-turn” in this country effected by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Marxists used to talk of “heightening the contradictions,” giving the other side what it wanted so its failures would become manifest. If Republicans were brilliant conspirators, they might welcome the contradictions of Obama’s new fiscal regime: He’s taking a budget already straining under historic deficits and the pressures of two underfinanced entitlements, and adding another dubiously financed entitlement on top of it, billed as “hope and change.”
Obama doesn’t yet seem to realize that reality matters and sets the standard by which his bill will be judged. “It makes Medicare stronger and more solvent,” Obama said Sunday night, in a typical offering of rhetorical sugar pills. “It will reduce our deficit by more than $100 billion over the next decade, and more than $1 trillion in the decade after that.”
The fact is that it takes $500 billion out of Medicare and applies it to the new program. The deficit figures are built on fairy-tale assumptions. The rest of the assurances made about the bill — it will reduce premiums, cut costs and create jobs — were desperate campaign-style promises made to get it over the finish line.
Obama said passage of the bill “proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things.” He defines our greatness by how much we are willing to tax ourselves and to spend. Whether the country accepts that view, and the dreary future it suggests, will be adjudicated in November and beyond.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.
(Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry(at sign)nationalreview.com)
© 2010 by King Features Syndicate