President Obama said last week, “Everything there is to say about health care has been said, and just about everybody has said it.” It does feel as though we’ve been arguing over health care forever and keep circling back over the same ground. But Obama’s wrong. There are three things that most liberals haven’t said and can’t admit to the public or to themselves:
1) They have a moral passion to cover the uninsured, and everything else is lip service. David Brooks was good on this yesterday, and David Ignatius made a similar point in the Washington Post the other day. Never underestimate the power of ideology and conviction in politics. Democrats are persisting in their present course because, more than anything else, they think it’s the right thing to do. That’s an admirable impulse, even if it’s woefully misapplied.
Politically, though, they can’t sell their plan solely on this basis. People might share the goal of covering the uninsured in the abstract, but not if it’s costly. This is where Obama’s utterly unconvincing focus on deficit reduction and controlling costs come in. It’s almost all pose and sleight of hand — because it’s not what Democrats care about, and it’s not why they are pushing themselves to the utmost to pass the bill.
2) The bill is unpopular. Sometimes liberals will draw an analogy to the surge, an unpopular policy that proved correct in the long run. But mostly they come up with weak excuses for the bill’s poor showing in polls.
It’s because it’s been demagogued by Sarah Palin! The “death panel” line had resonance for a few weeks. But it’s not why people in almost every poll disapprove of the bill. It’s because Barack Obama hasn’t communicated well! But as we saw at the health-care summit, Obama is far and away the best communicator in the national Democratic party. If he can’t make the case for this, no one can. The bill is popular in its particulars! Well, it depends on the particulars. If you pull out the popular ones, yes. If you focus on the unpopular ones, no. Newsweek mostly did the former in its poll that seemed to show attitudes toward the bill improved when people learned of its details. But Newsweek didn’t ask about the overall cost, the funding of abortion, the Medicare cuts, the dubious financing, or the likely upward pressure on premiums. Throw those features in, as will naturally happen in the debate over the bill, and it’s unpopular again.
It shouldn’t be difficult for liberals to say the bill is unpopular, but right nonetheless. Some of them do. But most don’t. It may simply pain them too much to acknowledge how uncongenial a center-right country finds their most cherished policy goal.
3) They care about health care so much that they are willing to resort to any maneuver to pass it. Many liberals have portrayed it as practically an everyday occurrence that far-reaching, historic social legislation lacking 60 votes in the Senate is passed through the reconciliation process. This is nonsense. Why not say that an end this important justifies almost any means, and Republicans, in the same position, would probably do the same thing? This would have the ring of truth about it. But such a concession would add another political burden to a bill with plenty of them already. Better to pretend that nothing extraordinary is going on.
When liberals admit these three things, everything will have been said. Until then, pace Obama, the debate is still incomplete.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.