Belmont Club

Someday I'll Meet You Again

Megan McArdle is willing to bet that there will no improvement in infant mortality or death rates over the next decade beyond those trends which were already established before its enactment. Nor will any of the reductions in bankruptcies nor costs claimed by health care “reform” advocates be observed. McArdle is waiting to see whether anybody will take her up. I think someone should. After all if health care “reform” is an improvement then its benefits should be measurable. If it’s not measurable then its not an improvement. But maybe she’s not broadminded enough.

Those who are reluctant to take up the McArdle bet are offering up another benefit. The President has “saved” his Presidency and shown that he could succeed where Bill Clinton could not. That doesn’t mean they’ll take McArdle’s bet; it only means they’re changing the currency of scorekeeping. They’re bringing history into the picture. Barack Obama has achieved something “historic” and that has a value which transcends mere death rates or dollars and cents.  David Frum appears to share McArdle’s doubts about healthcare “reform”‘s efficacy while adopting the historical political scorecard. Frum argues that by not playing nice with Obama, the Republicans passed up a chance to mitigate the bill’s worst features.

Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.

It’s at heart a pacifist argument, one which might have been heard at the British Cabinet Crisis of May 1940. The question that divided Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax was whether one might get more by talking rather than fighting. David Sanger at the New York Times repeats Frum’s question, but reserves judgment on whether or not President Obama ‘won’ or not. Sanger thinks it’s too early to tell. “But there is no doubt that in the course of this debate, Mr. Obama has lost something — and lost it for good. Gone is the promise on which he rode to victory less than a year and a half ago — the promise of a ‘postpartisan’ Washington in which rationality and calm discourse replaced partisan bickering.” Sanger correctly identifies the key factor that drove Republican opposition to the health care “reform” bill: a grassroots tax revolt which was unalterably opposed to a further expansion of Washington’s powers. The question is whether the Republicans by betting on the revolt have backed the wrong horse. Obama believes that they have. The Tea Party is a chimera, an illusion. Sanger says the President is convinced that once people get used to an insurance entitlement they will never be able to give it up. The Tea Parties will flicker, fade and then go out. People will get used to the new way of things.

At the core of Mr. Obama’s strategy stands a bet that the Republicans, in trying to portray the bill as veering toward socialism, overplayed their hand. Fueled by the antigovernment anger of the Tea Party movement, Republicans have staked much on the idea that they can protect the country by acting as what the Democrats gleefully call the “Party of No.” …

Mr. Obama’s gamble is that what worked for Johnson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt will ultimately work for him. Once Americans discover that they can no longer be rejected for insurance for pre-existing conditions, he is betting, or that they can keep their children on their own insurance plans longer, the more they will come to appreciate the effect of the changes on their day-to-day lives.

The obvious difference between Roosevelt’s position in 1940 and Obama’s in 2010 was World War 2. That global conflict destroyed practically the entire productive capacity of the industrialized world with the exception of the US. It allowed for an unparalleled economic expansion and was followed by a burgeoning demographic explosion we know as the Baby Boom. Those two factors together made Roosevelt’s entitlements appear to be sustainable. Even Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society 20 years later could still count on riding those two trends. Today’s crisis is largely the result of the final exhaustion of those twin booms. Where FDR found himself at the beginning, Obama finds himself at the end.

A better historical comparison of what might befall Obama emulation of FDR is those policies would have fared without the World War 2 or the Baby Boom to susutain them. Barack Obama is trying to be FDR while in the throes of a huge economic crisis, perhaps on the scale of the Depression, without anything like the deus ex machina of World War 2 to save him. Barring the sudden advent of a productive miracle like Cold Fusion or affordable self-replicating nanotechnology what Obama will have instead is the deficit of a World War without a World War.

Given those differences in circumstance it’s not certain whether the Republicans in backing the Tea Parties, have put themselves on the wrong side of history. Unless Barack Obama can find a way to pay for his promises they will, perforce be broken. And then there will be no talk of Frum’s missed opportunity to make nice but rather of a last botched chance to prevent a disaster. To McArdle’s wager that there will be no improvement in health statistics, we should add another. What are the odds that the Democrats who voted for the health care reform bill will not be regarded in the same way that we now look back at the Men of Munich?

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