Critical Condition

Your Money or Your Life

In America, whenever there is a major political debate, a narrative takes hold that shapes the conversation. After participating in and watching many town-hall meetings this August, here is what I think the narrative has become in the health-care debate:

“The expansion of government control over our economy in the last year is frightening. The shocking debt we are accumulating threatens our future and the future of the country we love. It doesn’t make any sense to spend another $1 trillion to try to save money on health care. Making massive changes to our health-care system scares us, as it will inevitably lead to the government rationing our health care. We don’t trust the government with our money or our lives.”

The health-care debate has touched core values in this country, and that is why hundreds of thousands of people have taken time out from their jobs and families to show up at town-hall meetings to tell their representatives in Congress (those who have been brave enough to hold town-hall meetings) that they are frightened about the expansion of government control.

How is President Obama going to change that with a speech before Congress next week? He faces an extremely difficult task, because his positions on health-care reform are interwoven with the expansion of government control over our economy that the American people fear.

If he thinks he can put Americans’ fears to rest by giving voters more details about his plan, as reports indicate, he is wrong. That will do absolutely nothing to change the debate.

After all, what policy details could he announce that would be dramatically different from those he has already offered? The major provisions of all the bills that have passed key committees in Congress are based upon policy proposals that candidate Obama offered in the 2008 presidential campaign — a public plan, an employer mandate, expansion of Medicaid, and a purchasing exchange that would give significant new powers to the federal government to regulate private health insurance.

The bills making their way through Congress now are all based upon his plan. And they all involve more and bigger government, which is exactly what the American people are saying, as loudly as they can, that they Do. Not. Want.

The president has backed himself into a very difficult corner, and even a soaring speech cannot get him out of it.

Support for his health-care agenda among liberal activists largely depends upon his continuing to back the “public plan.” They see that as a doorway to government health programs for all. But the public plan is the deal-breaker in the Senate. White House advisors are saying that the president may offer to put the public plan on hold and create it only if private health insurance doesn’t meet certain goals. That may get him the vote of Sen. Olympia Snowe, but it will not appease most opponents of his plan, and it will anger its supporters.

Also, the president’s goal of achieving universal coverage by the end of his first term inevitably means imposing mandates on individuals to purchase health insurance. Barack Obama avoided supporting this during the campaign but now says a federal requirement that everyone purchase health insurance is a pre-requisite for universal coverage. That would mean yet a higher level of government intrusion. It will not fly.

Here is what is different in 2009 from the debate over Hillarycare 15 years ago: The American people are much better informed this time about the details of the reform plans because they have so many sources of information — the Internet, talk radio, cable news. They are not going to be swayed by rhetoric. They want to know the facts. And the more they learn, the more the narrative of distrust takes hold. They don’t trust government with their money or their lives, and they want Washington to take out a clean sheet of paper and start over.

The debate begins anew when our senators and representatives return next week from their August recess. Many will be shell-shocked from their meetings with constituents and may be ready to start over. There are many problems to be solved in our health sector, and there are many people who have studied them in depth and are ready with ideas that would empower citizens, not government officials, to make decisions about their health care and insurance coverage.

— Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute.