Politics & Policy

Obamacare for Israel

We have seen this Obama two-step before.

 The message for Israel is simple: Enjoy your Obamacare!

The past week’s presidential aggression-and-retreat two-step — amid indignant protestations that there had ever been any aggression in the first place — perfectly fit Obama’s pattern, which is already shopworn less than three years into his term. To cite the classic case, who could forget the single-payer shuffle?

“I have not said that I am a supporter of a single-payer system,” declaimed Mr. Obama in 2009, as reported by National Review’s Jim Geraghty. The president’s assertion was an insult to the public intelligence, no matter how credulously the Obamedia repeated it. Out here in YouTube world, it was readily demonstrated that Obama had long been a dogmatic adherent of socialized medicine — meaning a complete government takeover of the health sector, destroying the private insurance industry and rationing care as if it were a corporate asset to be doled out by bureaucrats rather than a matter of personal choice in a free market.

“I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health-care program,” Obama said in 2003, before denying that he’d said any such thing a few years later. He was a state senator then, reelected in one of the country’s most left-wing districts and speaking comfortably in his element — activists for socialized medicine. Those who heard him speak his mind found his sentiments pedestrian, the sort of thing he said all the time. “A single-payer health-care plan, a universal health-care plan,” he’d elaborated, “that’s what I’d like to see.”

It was no surprise to people who actually knew Obama, such as Dr. Quentin Young, an Obama supporter from their Hyde Park neighborhood and the head of a socialized medicine lobby, Physicians for a National Health Program. Dr. Young argued that the dastardly private insurers were swimming in “profits that are breathtaking and obscene.” As Dr. Young recalled, Obama’s comments were “his categorical response,” something the state senator often repeated among constituents.

Obama is an Alinskyite, though, a practical radical. Ineffective radicals are so blinded by ideology, so intoxicated by their own sense of righteousness, that they refuse to gauge the public sensibilities. Alinskyites are no less committed to their ideology; indeed, only a person who has completely bought into his ideology can maintain the patient discipline necessary to implement his utopia incrementally. That discipline is what makes the Alinskyite effective. Such an operator understands that you must always check the public pulse: Figure out how far you can push people, but never push so far that you lose political viability. Without power, radicalism is a dead end. The race is not to the swift but to the electable.

So Obama tweaked his health-care positions, pretending he’d never said the things he’d said, massaging his message depending on the sensibilities of his audience. He shrewdly banked on a press corps willing to be enlisted to his purposes, and on the natural tendency of decent people to give likeable politicians the benefit of the doubt, to assume they are not being lied to.

The public did not want an all-out government takeover, so Obama claimed that wasn’t where he was coming from. The public does not want to underwrite insurance for illegal aliens, so the number of uninsured Americans described in Obama speeches suddenly shrank by 10 or 20 million when people started to catch on to his ambitious intentions. The public is far more worried about costs than about the uninsured, so Obama couched his plan’s astronomical spending in the rhetoric of fiscal discipline — presto, tens of millions of people would get a new entitlement that would somehow cost Americans less money. The public was promised a workable, affordable system, so the administration now issues thousands of waivers from Obamacare’s onerous terms, lest the dreaded emperor-has-no-clothes moment come before the 2012 election.

All of these were tactical maneuvers, not strategic ones. This is the thing to understand about Obama’s vaunted pragmatism. The president is not pragmatic in a free-wheeling sense, but pragmatic within the framework of leftist ideology. In the case of health care, the goal — unmistakable to anyone willing to gaze at the horizon instead of today’s talking points — is fully socialized medicine, the most practical route to a socialist economy in the United States. Each tactical adjustment is made with the ultimate goal in mind. Whether the moment’s politics call for galloping or inching along, the end is always in sight.

That is the formula for understanding Obama on Israel. In the hard-core Left from which the president hails, Israel is no less reviled than the health-insurance companies. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proudly boasted in his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, “America has no better friend than Israel.” That would be reason enough for those consumed by a blame-America-first mentality to loathe Israel. Palestinian Muslims live on global largesse and complain that it’s not enough, epitomize the culture of victimhood, and lionize terrorist “martyrs” who are no more savage (though a good bit more competent) than the iconic Bill Ayers and his Weather Underground. In short, the Palestinians check all the Left’s boxes. Even if Obama’s circle of Chicago friends did not include the rabidly anti-Israel Ayers and former PLO mouthpiece Rashid Khalidi, there would be little mystery about who is assigned the hero’s role and who is the villain in the president’s estimate of this long-running drama.

But Obama could not say such a thing and remain politically viable. He knows that. Anyone who watched the rousing bipartisan ovation that washed over his bête noire, Netanyahu, in Congress on Tuesday would know that. This is an ardently pro-Israel country, and Obama’s Palestinian sympathies are no more representative of where Americans stand than is the longing for single-payer health care. Just like leading from the rear, governing from the fringe is a skill. It is necessary to dissemble.

The 1967 borders the president floated last week are the single-payer of American Middle East policy. Just as single-payer is code for socialized medicine, the ’67 borders are code for an indefensible Israel that cannot survive as a Jewish state. Such an Israel is the dream of every leftist who has deluded himself into believing that Israel is a guilt-induced mistake of the post-Holocaust era, and that Israel’s continued existence as an outpost of Western liberalism in the Islamic world is the cause of Muslim animus and terror. You’ll never hear Obama or the Left say that. They will repeat the mantra that America’s bond with Israel is unbreakable, just as they repeated the mantra that the goal of “reforming” health care is to “control costs” (as opposed to controlling Americans). But it is what they really think, just as they really think health care should be nationalized to promote their idea of social justice, regardless of how much it costs.

By dilating on the ’67 borders, a practical radical gauges how far he can push the public without saying outright what his goal is. That is what Obama tried to do last week. He appeared to qualify the call for retrenching Israel’s boundaries with an allusion to land “swaps” — just as he frequently caveats his support for single-payer with hollow words about adjusting it to the private system we have, or about its being what he’d design on a clean slate but not necessarily what he seeks now.

In the case of Israel, the practical radical miscalculated. American Jews and other friends of Israel know that retreat to the ’67 borders is the Arab premise, not the premise from which all interested parties begin settlement discussions. The American and Israeli position has long been that those borders are implausible. Consequently, for an American president to utter “1967 borders,” with or without “swaps,” was a seismic shift.

Obama’s error was to wager that it would be a shift to which the public would be open, or at least indifferent. He has made the same sort of mistake before, confounding the unpopularity of the war in Iraq with what he hopefully took to be the unpopularity of Bush counterterrorism in general — a miscalculation that has led him into embarrassing reversals on commitments to close Gitmo, end military commissions, and return counterterrorism to the law-enforcement model.

This time, the blowback was immediate and instantly complemented by a dressing down from Netanyahu, a stunningly deft combination of eloquence, passion, and steely defiance cloaked in diplomatic respect. In what seemed like the blink of an eye between Thursday’s State Department speech and Sunday’s AIPAC speech, Obama went from asserting, “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” to risibly claiming that he’d said Israel and Palestine “will negotiate a border that is different from the one that existed on June 4, 1967.” He went from trying to dictate the course of future events to laughably insisting that all he’d meant was that Israelis and Palestinians would have to negotiate settlement terms on their own.

No one should be fooled, and no one was. Obama beat a breakneck retreat precisely because both his fans and his detractors realized he had tried to do something bold, his pretense to the contrary notwithstanding.

The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is straightforward, just as fixing what ails the health-care system is simple. The former requires Arab and Muslim concessions that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state, that terrorism is an unacceptable tactic for resolving political differences, and that Israel will not be engulfed by floods of “refugees.” The latter needs an acknowledgment that health care is no more a corporate asset than private property is and that a real market — one that eliminates third-party payers and turns users into sentient consumers — would drive down prices.

Of course, neither of these scenarios is acceptable to the Obama Left, so we’ll continue to see bobbing and weaving about 1967 borders and land swaps and preexisting conditions and end-of-life counseling and similar head-spinning esoterica. Always remember that these are just chess moves. Obama eyes the whole board, and he makes the occasional blunder, but he never kicks over the table: He keeps his eyes on ultimate goal. To beat him, it is necessary to know that — and make sure America knows it. The next time around, there’d be no reelection to worry about.

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