Belmont Club

Loaves and fishes

Peggy Noonan, describing the pushback on the administration’s health care proposals, eloquently describes what many commenters at the Belmont Club have mentioned over the past years: the “design margin” — that reserve of money or energy that let politicians try goofy or risky things — has vanished.  The searching hand has reached the bottom of the pocket and come up with lint. The resistance to the administration’s health care proposals isn’t rooted in a failure to “bend the curve”. It’s rooted in the salesman’s calculation of his customer’s capacity to buy.

The White House misread the national mood. The problem isn’t that they didn’t “bend the curve,” or didn’t sell it right. The problem is that the national mood has changed since the president was elected. Back then the mood was “change is for the good.” But that altered as the full implications of the financial crash seeped in. The crash gave everyone a diminished sense of their own margin for error. It gave them a diminished sense of their country’s margin for error. Americans are not in a chance-taking mood. They’re not in a spending mood, not after the unprecedented spending of the past year, from the end of the Bush era through the first six months of Obama. Here the Congressional Budget Office report that a health care bill would not save money but would instead cost more than a trillion dollars in the next decade was decisive. People say bureaucrats never do anything. The bureaucrats of CBO might have killed health care.

The final bill, with all its complexities, will probably be huge, a thousand pages or so. Americans don’t fear the devil’s in the details, they fear hell is. Do they want the same people running health care who gave us the Department of Motor Vehicles, the post office and the invasion of Iraq?

What’s really interesting is why the Administration thought it could be sold when the CBO told them the price. The majority of airliners don’t take off without enough fuel to get to their destinations. Most hikers don’t set out on a six day hike with a day’s worth of grub in the pack. Most people know the subway fare to wherever they’re going. So why does government, which asks its citizens to trust it with its health care, open its campaign by demonstrating its fecklessness?

The last ten decades have been such a cycle of “seek and ye shall find a tax dollar” that a mystical belief in the hidden stash has come into existence; an irrational conviction that even when bottom has been touched it will transpire that someone has been holding out and the money will come out of somewhere — the bottom of a shoe, the cuff of a sleeve, maybe a gold dollar hidden down the throat — but come it will. I think the real manifestation of inability to read the “national mood” isn’t the ill-fated health care proposal, it is environmental legislation. Buying into that is like paying for a set of diamond studded cuff links with the remaining limit on your credit card. Why is affordability rarely an issue? Why are wants always believed to be satisfiable now? The New York Times describes how environmentalists have become disgusted by the “limited” action of President Obama.

For environmental activists like Jessica Miller, 31, the passage of a major climate bill by the House last month should have been cause for euphoria. Instead she felt cheated. … But over the last few months, as the ambitious climate legislation was watered down in the House without criticism from the president, Ms. Miller became disillusioned. She worried that the bill had been rendered meaningless — or had even undermined some goals Greenpeace had fought for. And she felt that the man she had thought of as her champion seemed oddly prone to compromise.

“I voted for the president, I canvassed for him, but we just haven’t seen leadership from him,” said Ms. Miller, who rappelled down Mount Rushmore on Wednesday with colleagues to unfurl a banner protesting what they called President Obama’s acquiescence to the compromises.

Her banner read “America honors leaders, not politicians”. But leadership can’t squeeze blood out of a stone; and the first test of a genuine leader is the capacity to recognize that. Real leaders, like real airline pilots, know how far and high their airplane can fly. They know the design margins of their vehicles. May she should consider another banner: “America honors activists who can add and subtract.” I wonder sometimes what it is like to live in a world unfettered by such considerations. Perhaps that place is Gaia, or the Worker’s Paradise. But it’s not the planet earth.

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