Republicans should stop taking the boob bait of the press. The story of the day is ObamaCare and the pain it is causing the Democrats. That story is not being fully explored. We are not seeing pieces on Captol Hill Democrats rethinking their four-year-long lockstep backing of a program that is failing massively and before the nation’s eyes. I’m not seeing “Pelosi Agonistes: The Speaker Who Said ‘We Have to Pass It to Find Out What’s In It’ Has Some Regrets.” We’re not seeing “Democratic House Group Meets, Anguishes, Decides on New Path.” We’re not reading “Dem Sens From Red States Bolt: ‘It Only Takes One to Start a Jailbreak.’”
The focus of political journalism now should be on what’s happening on the Democratic side, because ObamaCare is a Democratic program. They bought it, they built it, what now?
Democrats aren’t talking about that, at least on the record, and none of them colorfully. They’re in the domestic political/policy debacle of their lives and their reaction is discretion. Some of them are loyal, some of them are kind. Some of them think in terms of blind team-ism. Some of them fear reprisal from the party’s enforcers. Some are stupid and don’t understand the fix they’re in. But many of them are simply disciplined.
What are we seeing on the Republican side? Nonstop taking of the press’s boob bait. “Potential Christie Rival Says He’s Not Conservative,” “GOP Readies for 2016 Battle Reflecting Party Divisions,” “GOPer: ‘Moderation the Path,’” “GOPer: Why Do Women Hate Us?” “Establishment Hates Grass Roots,” “Grass Roots Hates Establishment,” “Libertarians Hate Everyone,” “Everyone Hates Them,” “Republican: Even I Hate Me.”
Someone should tell Republicans that the story now, next week and this winter is ObamaCare, not 2016. It is what to do about ObamaCare. 2016 is not the subject now, it is a changing of the subject.
Is the press beginning to focus on the Democrats and 2016? To a small degree. Mostly they’re fixed on Hillary Clinton. Someone said on cable this morning that there’s the Elizabeth Warren story, she’s being mentioned. Somebody else said Sen. Warren’s in the news as a possible contender because the press needs a 2016 story on the Democratic side, it’s no fun to cover a coronation. True enough. But even truer is this: Hillary needs a fight. She has to prove she can win, not glide. She needs someone to defeat. Democrats understand Mrs. Clinton’s eventual future primary win will be tarnished, even clouded, if no one serious gets in to do battle with her. She has to appear to have fought for it. So they’re in search of a few interesting contenders who can fight hard and lose well.
* * *
Back to ObamaCare.
More than four years ago, in July 2009, I wrote a column in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered President Obama some wisdom on health care. Obama’s newly proposed plan—the Affordable Care Act—wouldn’t work, said FDR. In fact, Obama’s proposal put him in a “lose-lose” position. “If you don’t get a bill along the lines you’ve announced, you’ll look ineffective and weak—a loser. If, on the other hand, you win, if you get what you asked for, it will all be a mess and all be on you. The system will be overwhelmed, the government won’t be able to execute properly, the costs will be huge.” FDR said the Obama plan would “thoroughly discombobulate things” and ruin the Democrats’ prospects in the 2010 election.
But FDR had an idea—a sly one, as his ideas usually were. First, he told Obama, drop your current bill. Second, take everyone aback by talking constantly about the national medical program that already exists, Medicare. Show your love for it, insistently—but also admit very freely what isn’t quite perfect about it. “Get your people in Congress to focus on making the system ‘healthier.’ It’s rife with waste, fraud and abuse, everyone knows that. And there’s the demographic time bomb. Come together in a great show of bipartisan feeling with our Republican friends and announce some serious cost-saving measures that are both legitimate and farsighted. Be ‘Dr. Save the System.’ On thorny issues like end-of-life care, put together a bipartisan commission, show you’re open to Republican suggestions.”
The sly fox was telling the young president to show good faith to Republicans by admitting problems, and reassure Democrats by showing his heart and commitment to federal solutions. “Then, at the end,” said FDR, “get your Democratic majorities to make one little change in the program—it’s now open to all. You don’t have to be 65. The uninsured can enroll. Do it in the dead of night if you have to, you’ve got the votes.” Such a program, he said, after so many institutional and structural changes, would of course have to have a new name. “I’d suggest ‘The National Health Service.’”
“Voilà. You now have the single-payer system you wanted.” “Everybody wins. You get expansion, Republicans get cost control, the system is made more secure, and the public for once isn’t terrified.”
Would it make Republicans happy to think they beat Obama back on his original boondoggle? Sure. “But people will start referring to the National Health Service every day, and they’ll believe they have one, and they’ll believe you gave it to them. And you can run in ’12 saying you did. That’s what I’d do!”
I still believe FDR was more or less right. It was 2009, Obama had just been elected, we looked to be at the beginning of a big liberal wave. America was anxious, coming to terms with a terrible recession, maybe worse than that. And everyone knew the health-care system was a mess. There would have been plenty of space for turning it around by cleaning up and repairing, and then broadening, deepening and enriching, the health structure we already had. And not inventing a new one.
Comprehensive new programs have a million moving parts. Programs with a million moving parts are less likely to succeed. ObamaCare hasn’t, and won’t.
* * *
A final word on Democrats on the Hill and ObamaCare. In the past month they’ve dealt with the disaster through talking points. That’s what parties in duress do, have kids in the back room write press releases based on the pushback guidance of combative consultants. Those talking points have gone, more or less, from “heavy demand caused the website to crash” to “the website will soon be fixed” to “every big program has bumps at the beginning” to “wait till the American people see their benefits!” to “not that many policies have been cancelled” to “not that many premiums have gone up” to “not that many people will lose their doctors.
Not one of the talking points has worked. Because incoming data, day by day, kept washing over them and sinking them.
The new talking point is that ObamaCare was damaged and fell due to Republican “sabotage.” Republicans on Capitol Hill refused to vote for it, refused to like it and support it. They tried repeatedly to repeal it and defund it.
And all this is true. But it is not sabotage. This is opposition. The Republicans thought the ACA a bad piece of work, a bad bill that would make things worse, not better.
Still, Republicans should take the sabotage charge seriously, because it is not a claim aimed at the consideration of the American people but of history. Democrats are admitting with this charge that ObamaCare is a disaster. They no longer want to argue that it is not. They are arguing that it is a disaster brought about by Republicans. That will be what they argue for history and feed their journalistic historians.
As I remember it, the Democrats on Capitol Hill got the bill they wanted. They were heady, back in the majority, with a new and popular president, and they didn’t much care about GOP support. They wanted the credit: It was their bill. They wrote it in a way no Republican could support. And they got no Republican support. When Paul Ryan, who had emerged as the Republican point man, attempted to come forward with ideas, he was rebuffed.
The new president—and this was a key historic moment—decided not to act on the accumulated presidential wisdom of the ages, which is: Get the other party in on all big things. Give them a stake in it, use them for cover, show you have bipartisan juice, that you are truly national and not only the leader of one party, show you can wield your mighty power across the aisles. Get them bragging they passed it, with your leadership. Make them co-own it so that when certain parts don’t work, and certain parts won’t, they have deep motives to help you fix it.
Instead, a perfect storm of misjudgment, immaturity and lack of historical perspective, and a perfect storm of shortsighted selfishness (it’s all ours, it’s not even a little bit yours) brought forth a perfect storm of a health-care disaster.