I think it is important to give credit where credit is due. Regular readers know that I have been critical of President Obama in this column. Doubtless there will be future occasions for disagreement. But the president got one big thing right a few days ago, and it is incumbent upon fair-minded people to acknowledge his candor and percipience: the Massachusetts Senate race really was a referendum on the Obama agenda.
What is the Obama agenda? All eyes have been focused on the proposed bills to transform the way health care is managed, delivered, and paid for in the United States. The Democrats scored a rhetorical triumph by getting everyone, opponents as well as supporters, to refer to this proposed government takeover of medicine as “health care reform.” “Reform”? What is being proposed is “health care reform” in approximately the sense that Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920s was “agricultural reform.” That effort to bring hope and change to the Kulaks succeeded in what President Obama described as his goal of “spreading the wealth around,” though not, perhaps, in precisely a way that the local (de)population appreciated.
The fate of the Democratic proposals to collectivize medicine is a big issue, no doubt about it. And I for one hope that Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts last night will put the brakes on that ruinous piece of stealth-socialism masquerading as “reform.”
It is important, though, to recognize that the effort to expropriate the delivery and financing of health care — let’s stop calling it “reform” — is one spoke in the wheel of the Obama Offensive. What this administration has been about in its first year includes the collectivization of medicine. But that is only one part of a much larger goal, a goal adumbrated by Governor Mitch Daniels when he spoke of the Obama administration’s “shock and awe statism.”
This past summer, Senator Jim DeMint suggested that, were Obama foiled in his plans to collective medicine, the defeat would prove to be his “Waterloo.” Perhaps. Were the effort to collectivize medicine fail, I suspect it would be more like the battle of Leipzig: a defeat, but not a final defeat. I take the President’s threat to “double down” in the face of a victory by Scott Brown seriously. My PJM colleague Richard Fernandez is probably right that “The fundamental theme of 2010 will be a struggle for power.” As Fernandez, observes, “The polarization which began in early 2009 has increased rather than diminished. . . . Massachusetts is not the last, but the first in a series of meeting engagements between two rival factions. My own sense is that fundamental issues are now at stake.”
What are those issues? One concerns the proper role of government in American life. The Constitution was primarily an effort to define, to set limits, to the power of the state. The Founders understood both the need for federalism and the dangers of statism. In their effort to “form a more perfect Union” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” they were everywhere at pains to circumscribe the reach of state power. Having tasted tyranny first hand, and having pondered the melancholy lessons of history, they understood the awful metabolism of servitude. President Obama was quite right when, way back in 2001, he described the Constitution as “a charter of negative liberties.” What he did not understand then — and what he clearly still cannot get his mind around — is that fact that this “negative,” “merely formal” quality of the Constitution is one of its great strengths, not a weakness. In 2001, Senator Obama complained that the Constitution only told you what the state and federal government “can’t do to you,” not what it must do for you. As I noted at the time,
For a couple thousand years, people were desperately eager to frame constraints that would apply to their governments, that would limit, for example, the government’s ability to expropriate their property, to force them to educate their children in a certain way, or subscribe to certain government-mandated beliefs.
That sort of traditional political freedom is not enough for left-wingers. Ever since Marx decried bourgeois freedom as merely “formal,” the left has set out not to preserve freedom but to remake society according to a utopian scheme.
This is exactly what Obama wants to do. The “tragedy” of the civil-rights movement, he said, is that in focusing on “negative” freedom, it tended to “lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.”
Bringing about “redistributive change” is what the Obama administration is all about. The victory of Scott Brown is a reminder that even in the most liberal state in the Union, that statist imperative inspires fear and loathing, not support. How Obama and the powers that be in Washington (and I mean Republicans as well as Democrats) respond will determine the nature and comity of our public conversation for years to come. The victory of Scott Brown was a sign, a portent, an admonition. The question is, who is paying attention?