Here we go again.
As the president stumps -- yet again -- for his health care plan today, it is worth looking back at the events of the last several weeks. During this time, we’ve seen episodes of high political theater that have clarified the issues and cast into stark relief the relative values, strategies, and prospects for both sides in the health care debate.
Take the recent health care summit, where, temperamentally, President Barack Obama did his team no favors: He was by turns haughty, condescending and long winded. The Republicans, by contrast, with no one person to speak for them, contributed to the discussion by turn and in roles designed to maximize their individual strengths– avuncular Lamar Alexander opened with a soft spoken and earnest statement; young turk Paul Ryan attacked with barbed policy points; Mitch McConnell rebutted Democratic arguments with southern grace, etc.
Tactically, the two sides displayed similar strategies. Republicans brought in copies of the enormous health care bills, read from them, referenced them, all to the annoyance of the Democrats -- Obama even scolded Rep. Eric Cantor for using the Senate bill as a “prop.” The Democrats meanwhile, read from props of their own -- letter after letter, allegedly from constituents, detailing one health care horror story after another. (Of course, it does not logically follow that Obamacare, 1) would rectify these tales of woe, or 2) wouldn’t cause problems of their own, but never mind.)
The summit and subsequent events have revealed two distinct philosophies that are like oil and water, and are likely to mix just about as well. Democrats obsess over the uninsured; the Republicans over cost. Democrats believe it’s the business of the government to dictate coverage; the Republicans that government’s role must be limited and encourage competition. What we’re talking about here is two vastly different views of the nature and rationale of federal authority in our lives, a difference between top down and bottom up, between centralized or diffused power, between government that knows best and liberty that comes first.
The best line in this whole debate so far was uttered by Eric Cantor, when at the summit he put his hand on the Senate bill and said to the president: "We can't afford this. That is the ultimate problem here."
Quite right. The president claims his plan would cost about $950 billion. That’s $950 billion more than we have. Our anticipated budget deficit for 2010 will be a record $1.6 trillion; the CBO foresees $6 trillion in deficits over the next decade, an untenable situation which even Obama’s Secretary of State admits is a sobering national security challenge.
In fact, these deficits are a mortal threat to our civilization. If these politicians were truly honest, they would have looked at each other and said, “Cantor’s right, there’s no way we can afford this right now!” adjourned the meeting, retired to their respective offices and chambers, and gotten to work getting Americans back to work, which is what they should have been doing in the first place.
But they didn’t, of course, for in high stakes poker, if you’re in, you’re in all the way. And the president seems to have played his hand well – a Rasmussen poll showed a three point jump in the plan’s favorability from the week before the summit, though a majority of Americans remain opposed to it. The public appears to have given Obama some credit for going through the motions of negotiating, and too few Americans watched the event to have been put off by the president’s pouting and scolding.
With the summit behind him, President Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders on March 2 saying that he is open to incorporating some GOP proposals into his health care plan. He can now claim that he sat down the other side, listened to their arguments, and came away open to some of their ideas. The gauntlet has now been thrown down to the Republicans, who must argue that their proposals weren’t offered for incorporation into the president’s plan, but as replacements for it.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter what the Republicans argue, or what the public thinks. The Democrats, at the president’s urging, are using the slight bump in momentum -- gleaned from the summit -- as political cover to force their plan through Congress, via reconciliation if necessary, on a party line vote.
They may well succeed, and in so doing will have done more damage to their careers, their party, and their country than they can possibly imagine.
Matt Patterson is a policy analyst for the National Center For Public Policy Research and a National Review Institute Washington fellow. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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