Politics & Policy

Bipartisan Agreement on Health Care Masks a Deep Divide

(Photo: Feverpitched/Dreamstime)
Politicians left and right argue over small-bore issues while avoiding the core questions that truly divide Americans.

Over the weekend, President Trump gave his weekly YouTube address, using the platform to bash Obamacare: “Millions of families across our nation are suffering under the disaster known as Obamacare. . . . Democrats in Congress created this calamity and now, if we don’t act, millions more Americans will be hurt by Obamacare’s deepening death spiral.”

Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders (I.,Vt.) appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press. “When you throw 23 million people off of health insurance, people with cancer, people with diabetes, thousands of people will die,” he explained. “I wish I didn’t have to say it. This is not me. . . . It is common sense.”

Then there was Governor John Kasich (R., Ohio), who seized the moral high ground while appearing on CNN’s State of the Union: “I think there are too many people that cower in the wings because of partisanship, not just Republicans, Democrats as well. . . . I’m worried about poor people. You know what? Both parties, both parties ought to be worried about poor people, because I don’t think either party particularly cares about helping poor people.”

If you read these three major political figures arguing with one another, you could be forgiven for believing they’d stumbled onto a serious policy conflict. Clearly, major issues are at stake. Aren’t they?

Not really. President Trump wants to re-enshrine Obamacare’s two central premises: that it is the government’s job to make sure everyone has health insurance, and that health-insurance companies should therefore be forced to cover pre-existing conditions. Sanders wants to spend more money on the same two principles — or do away with the second principle altogether in favor of a direct government program. Kasich expanded Obamacare in his own state, saying that St. Peter would want government health-care spending expanded, and he mirrors both Trump and Obama in his central contention that there is a government-guaranteed “right” to health insurance.

What are these three fighting over? Whether to spend an insane amount of money on Medicaid or simply a crazy amount of money on Medicaid; whether to pay for everyone’s insurance through taxes later or today; whether to force insurance companies to cover services that are unnecessary or allow them to pare such services back to a moderate extent; whether to mandate that healthy people buy health insurance or whether to coax them into gradual single-payer acceptance via back-door fines. All of this matters, of course. But to suggest that this is a cataclysmic conflict over principles is idiotic. Democrats and Republicans apparently agree on health care’s central principles, they just argue over how best to implement them.

And yet the passions run high.

Government has become a faculty lounge: Never have so many fought so hard and so viciously over so little. Because politics has become a series of statements of passion, disconnected from policy — and because the media make a mint from magnifying passions in order to create the entertaining feeling of emotional involvement in some great moral conflict — we’re now at each other’s throats over matters that by any objective yardstick are small potatoes. Our politicians aren’t debating civil rights. They’re not debating slavery. They’re not even debating abortion or health care.

In fact, our politicians generally elide the most important policy questions of the day — the ones that would implicate central principles. That’s because so long as they stick to the center of the road and then act as though they’re facing threats for doing so, they don’t have to alienate anyone — and they can rake in money.

For example, on the hot-button issue of whether religious Americans ought to be protected from government intervention when they operate their businesses according to religious dictates — the single most important cultural issue in America today — politicians have been largely silent. What’s Trump’s perspective on the issue? We have no idea. Bernie Sanders doesn’t spend a good deal of time talking about it either. And John Kasich couldn’t be more vague. When politicians do have to sound off on such issues, they often run from the fray (see then-governor Mike Pence’s perspective on his state’s religious-freedom bill).

How about general philosophical disagreements on the nature of the size and scope of government? Sanders at least has the honesty of the committed Marxist. But most Republicans and Democrats insist on talking around one another, paying homage to the free market while seeking to regulate it. They only proclaim life-or-death battle over some relatively minute piece of legislation, abandoning discussion of first principles in favor of easier, more politically polarizing tactics.

Politicians want passions running high. It’s tough to pry a buck from a fellow who thinks you’re busy all day rewriting a statute on Medicaid reimbursement.

But the public knows better. Americans themselves understand that they are divided on root issues such as the level of opportunity in the country and the fundamental right to be protected by and from government. We are polarized. And politicians seek to exacerbate that polarization, not alleviate it; they want passions running high all the time. It’s tough to pry a buck from a fellow who thinks you’re busy all day rewriting a statute on Medicaid reimbursement.

This creates a system of perverse incentives. Americans want their politicians arguing over the big issues — we do have big issues to discuss. Politicians have an interest in avoiding big issues while giving the impression that they are at war over big issues. The result: small divisions over policy inflated into be-all, end-all arguments that never even implicate central issues.

No wonder Americans are frustrated. We keep hearing that big issues are at stake. Politicians keep saying that big issues are at stake. We know that big issues are at stake. And then nothing changes.

And so the American public polarizes, even as politicians argue over small and smaller issues. A 2014 Pew poll showed that while in 1994, just 16 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republicans thought the opposing party was a “threat to the nation’s well-being,” today, those numbers are 27 percent and 36 percent, respectively. These numbers make for fat wallets at respective party headquarters. But if politicians aren’t using those dollars to forward broader values held by the voters, they’re just scam artists.


Health-Care Histrionics on the Left

No, Obamacare Repeal Will Not Kill Tens of Thousands

We’re Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Towards Divorce

— Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of the Daily Wire.


Mr. Shapiro is the host of the podcast The Ben Shapiro Show, the editor emeritus of The Daily Wire, and the author of How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps and The Right Side of History.


The Latest