Published March 22, 2010
Some thoughts on the meaning of the passage of yesterday's health-care bill.
1. It is without question a landmark bill, among the most far-reaching pieces of social legislation in our history. For President Obama to be able to have resurrected it in the midst of enormous public opposition and deep concerns among Democrats, especially in the aftermath of the Massachusetts Senate race in late January, is politically quite impressive. When he was being told to pare down his plan, Obama instead doubled down and, in terms of winning passage of his signature domestic initiative, he won. As a result, the media coverage will be overwhelmingly favorable to Obama and Democrats. Among the political class, he instantaneously goes from being seen as a weak president to being seen as a strong president, from inept to imposing. Barack Obama has certainly left his stamp on history.
2. This legislative victory, though, comes at quite a high cost. Among other things, the health-care debate has utterly shattered the impression of Obama as a post-partisan, fresh, unifying, and attractive political figure. All his talk about “turning the page” in American politics was cynical nonsense. The deals that were cut to pass this legislation were tainted and ugly. The deceptive and misleading arguments used by proponents of health-care reform was extraordinary. And the level of disgust that this whole effort has created among Americans may be unprecedented in our lifetime. The means used to pass ObamaCare will, for many Americans, become shorthand for political corruption. That impression will not soon fade away.
3. The operating assumption for Democrats is that people will forget the ugly process once they come to understand the wonders of the legislation. Republicans argue the opposite; what until now have been merely theoretical concerns about ObamaCare are about to become real-world and deeply personal ones. And opposition to the plan, which has grown since the summer, will get more, not less, intense, as they feel the harmful effects of what Obama and the Democratic party have done (in taxes, premiums, rationing, the quality of care, doctor shortages, government spending, and more).
4. The substance of this legislation will determine whether what happened yesterday is historic and laudatory — or historic and calamitous. Those of us who are conservative are in the latter camp. Time will tell who is right and who is wrong. But we do know this: the nationalization of American health care has set up a debate about first principles unlike any we have seen since 1980. The political swords are drawn; the fight will be intense and protracted, and it will offer the country two fundamentally different views of the relationship between the individual and the state.
The Democratic party is now, more than ever, the party of big government, at a time when trust in government is near historic lows. Democrats engineered a federal takeover of the American health-care system at a moment when confidence in Washington is virtually nonexistent. And at a time when the deficit and debt are white-hot concerns with the public, the Democrats — with the stroke of Barack Obama's pen — will claim ownership for the fiscal wreckage that awaits us.
5. Some of us have been arguing that passage of ObamaCare would do even more damage to the Democratic party than its failure. This view is predicated on the belief that when you take extremely unpopular legislation, pass it through means that are widely seen as corrupt, and make the health-care system worse rather than better, you will pay a high political price. Democrats already have, simply during the debate about health-care reform. But ObamaCare has now landed. It is what the Obama presidency and the Democratic party now stand for. And I suspect what they have experienced so far, in races in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, will seem like glory days compared to what will happen to them on the first Tuesday of November, and beyond.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.