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Killing Obamacare

There’s no time to waste.

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By JAY COST
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The recent government shutdown illustrated a lot of political truths. For starters, people are unhappy when the government is shut down, and they naturally tend to blame the party of less government. The media instinctively help them conclude that the Republicans are at fault.

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

But the shutdown also illustrated just how unprepared the Republican party is to deal with the threat of Obamacare. Even though the law is unpopular, Republicans failed to convince the country of how great a threat it poses to the public good. Poll after poll shows that only a minority thinks the law will make them worse off, despite growing evidence that Obamacare’s side effects are serious and far-reaching. “Shutdown theater” did nothing to alter that attitude, which reflects poorly on the Tea Party backbenchers who wanted this fight and the leaders who prosecuted it. And now it appears House Republicans intend to deemphasize Obamacare and focus again on cutting traditional spending.

This is a mistake. The fight against Obamacare cannot be pushed to the sidelines. If the shutdown failed to notch any victory against it, then conservative leaders need to rethink their tactics and try something different. The easiest path to victory against the law, at first glance, is to win total control of the government in the 2016 elections. But a closer look at the law, especially in historical context, indicates grave risks associated with that approach: Obamacare may do much damage by that point, and it may be substantially more difficult to undo four years down the road. 

Obamacare is, of course, a liberal law, as all agree. But its place within liberalism is a peculiar one, and worth investigating in some detail. When we think about the modern American left, we often think of the provision of benefits, suggested by Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. It is that third freedom that American liberals have focused on for generations, giving us Social Security, Medicare, aid to education, and so on. Four Freedoms liberalism has been decidedly rights-based. 

But there was an earlier brand of liberalism that did not emphasize the distribution of benefits to the same extent. Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose progressives promoted some rights-based goals, like restrictions on child labor, but these were pieces of a grander puzzle: the management of the entire American economy by technocratic experts for the greater good. This is why the Bull Moosers did not want to outlaw all trusts: They saw the utility of some trusts, and believed that with governmental guidance trusts could be made to work in the public interest. Indeed, many progressives at the turn of the last century spoke of the concept of individual rights as an antiquated notion that unfortunately had been embedded in the Constitution.

As an academic, Woodrow Wilson believed that the Constitution wrongly immortalized principles whose time had gone, and during the 1912 campaign, he nominally opposed TR’s “New Nationalism.” In practice, however, he advanced the Bull Moose vision as much as anybody could have hoped. The legislation creating the Federal Trade Commission, for instance, which was passed under his guidance, granted the new regulatory agency vast discretion. And World War I was a decidedly progressive affair, with the government taking a firm hand over the management of the economy for the war effort. 

It was the success of the progressives in World War I that inspired Franklin Roosevelt—Wilson’s assistant secretary of the Navy—to treat the Great Depression as a national emergency akin to the Great War. Accordingly, his administration took a heavy hand in managing both agriculture and industry. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) restricted agricultural output in the hope of stabilizing farm prices, with remuneration to farmers who followed the rules. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) offered big business a bargain: The government would suspend the Sherman Antitrust Act, allowing businesses to coordinate through trade associations, so long as they worked with the government to create and abide by socially responsible production goals. This was the pinnacle of Bull Moose progressivism. The government would convene and manage a coalition of economic stakeholders for the public good. If that meant the diminution of traditional rights, so be it.

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