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Catastrophic Success

The perils of a ‘do everything’ Democratic Congress.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Along with the lawsuits, and fights in the House and statehouses, there seems to exist a distinct possibility that the act may collapse of its weight. Assembled in haste​​—​one might say desperation​​—​and larded with deals to secure votes and backing, it is a 2,000-plus page assemblage of time bombs with varying fuse lengths that are starting to blow up in succession, causing large numbers of people inconvenience, or money, or both. Almost every provision seems to have some part that conflicts with another or contrives in some way to screw up the market in ways hitherto unforeseen. Increased costs are causing employers to drop people from coverage, to charge more for coverage, or to drop drug coverage for employees’ children. Thus far, 222 waivers have been granted to members of interest groups who favor the Democrats, enabling them to opt out of parts of the plan that might become onerous. Doctors are planning to shutter their practices. The promises made by Obama​—​about being able to keep your own plan or doctor​—​are turning out to be hollow. “Firms Feel Pain from Health Law” ran a recent article in the Wall Street Journal describing the problems faced by large and middle-sized businesses in trying to understand, much less to comply with, the act. 

“There’s [an] administrative burden just to try and understand the 2,400 pages,” said one executive, describing the pain of spending so much time and money on things that aren’t helping their companies grow. Because of this, among other reasons, the bill continues to grow more unpopular, as six in ten people now favor repeal. “It’s looking more and more as if [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] as passed is simply not politically (or practically) stable,” Megan McArdle wrote on the website of the Atlantic. “I think Democrats were counting on having more years to tweak it.  .  .  . That was a very dangerous gamble .  .  . considering how badly it did in the polls.” They counted on time to tweak it upward and left (assuming that history moves in just this direction), and now have to realize it will be tweaked downward and right, if it survives in the first place. And let us recall that all of their upbeat predictions​—​that Obama’s numbers would go up by 10 points once he signed it (Bill Clinton); that people would reward Democrats for having “proved they could govern”; that people would ignore or get over the process that was used to pass Obamacare; that it would be accepted and grow popular, like Social Security​—​have proved to be wrong. 

Don’t be too sure, finally, that the damage Obama-care has done to the progressive agenda is something that can be quickly undone. Remember the hype at Obama’s election? It was historic! It was transcendent! It was transformational, uppercase CHANGE! Conservatism was dead, said Sam Tanenhaus and a cadre of others. Newsweek affirmed that we were “all socialists now.” The mainstream narrative held that the financial crisis had opened a door for Obama and Reid and Pelosi, and that their successes would feed a demand for more government. But the master plan failed to work out. The Democrats’ “stimulus” gave birth to resistance; the mortgage bailouts conjured a Tea Party; and then it was health care reform​—​the act itself, along with the long fight to pass it​—​that brought it all tumbling down. Obama’s job approval ratings were in the high 50s in April 2009, when he began selling health care; in the high 40s in December, when the Senate passed health care, and in the low 40s when Congress put the finishing touches to Obamacare in March 2010. 

Along the way, independents discovered their inner Republican and swung against the man they had elected; conservatism had an astounding revival; and support for activist government, which had briefly ticked up with Obama’s election to a 51-43 ratio, fell back two years later to 38-56. His legislative successes all added up to less faith in government: By the summer of 2010, a large group of liberals had succumbed to depression, as they sensed their successful battles had produced a lost war. “The storyline is much larger than merely that the stimulus has failed,” wrote Michael Tomasky in the Guardian. “It is that government is a failure. . . . The great bottom-line hope back in November 2008 was that Obama was going to restore trust in government and prove it could solve problems. That hasn’t happened.” The chance of a lifetime has been squandered by liberals. Another won’t come again soon.

Giddy with failure after the midterm elections, some on the left still insist it was all worth it, regardless of their losses. They “convinced themselves that their agenda . . . is the moral equivalent of the Voting Rights Act,” as William Galston has put it, a cause whose grandeur justifies unpopularity and electoral defeat. But the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed with healthy majorities and many votes from Republicans; they were unpopular in the deep South, but nowhere beyond it. While passing them, Lyndon B. Johnson won a spectacular blowout in the 1964 election, losing only the old South, plus his opponent’s home state. Obamacare, however, has always been unpopular, is unpopular, everywhere and has only seen its unpopularity increase. Liberals claim an entitlement is never rejected, but the broad middle class doesn’t think that this is one: It expects to pay more for less choice and less service, which fuels its strong opposition and pique.

There is no precedent for a bill of this size and scope being passed in defiance of the will of the public by a duly-elected majority which has nonetheless ceased to reflect or even acknowledge the views of the voters. For this reason, much of the public thinks it illegitimate, and sees nothing wrong in amassing a collection of weapons in the effort to see it undone.

If a Republican is elected in 2012, then health care is history. If health care is the issue, Obama will lose. If all things are equal, and it is an issue, a loss is still likely. If the economy rebounds strongly, Obama will probably win. But if it doesn’t, and he loses because of this reason, then health care will have helped do him in. Businesses are sitting on loads of cash these days, reluctant to invest and add jobs until they know what will happen with regulations and taxes under this new health care dispensation, which may take effect, be radically altered in the states or by Congress, or be blown away by the courts. They may not know until during or after the 2012 cycle, when the Supreme Court may weigh in, the wars in the states and the House may be settled, and they may have some idea who will be running the government in 2013. If the recovery stalls through 2012, it will be very bad news for the president.

The Democrats’ problem is that their losses are locked in and a given, while the state of their “win” remains highly precarious. If Obama wins, his health care regime may still emerge diminished and battered. If he loses, for whatever reason, then Obamacare is gone.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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