The Magazine

They Had a Dream

Rule by experts comes a cropper

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Doubtless, Obama and crew had fully expected their project to be popular, owing to two tenets of liberal theory—that a crisis always makes people more open to large and expansive federal government and that people never turn away from free stuff. But this assessment was drawn from the New Deal experience, when the crisis was much graver, government was much smaller and had more room to grow, and examples of what could occur when government became too big and expensive were not yet in anyone’s mind. Even at that, FDR waited to introduce Social Security until well after the financial panic was quelled, while Obama introduced his big, expensive, and far more complex program while the crash had not yet abated.  

Polls at the time showed that people resented having the emphasis switched from the economic recovery to the health care proposal, and when the details started to leak out during the spring and summer of 2009, they began to resent it still more. Over that summer, Obama’s poll numbers steadily descended from the astronomical highs he had reached upon taking office, protests broke out in large public rallies, and Democrats coming from purple and red states and districts began hearing from angry voters. An FDR would most likely have pulled back a little, tried to reassure his constituents, reached out to some centrist Republicans, and crafted a bill with broader backing. But Obama was no FDR. He came from the school that maintained the country quite often didn’t know its own interests. Mencken had called the people “ignorant peasants,” and Stevenson, when told that “all thinking Americans” had voted for him, replied, “Yes, but I need a majority.” 

There would be no backing off. The Obamacare debate appeared designed to create opposition where it never existed, and provoke it where it had already occurred. The Democratic leadership bent many arms and even broke a few to push the first draft of the bill through the House, winning no votes from the Republicans while losing 34 of their own. In November, Virginia and New Jersey, which had gone for Obama by 6- and 15-point margins, elected Republican governors in vote swings of 18 and 12 points. In December, Democrats muscled the bill through the Senate as a Christmas Eve present, having spent millions to bribe their own members to defy their constituents. In January, Massachusetts, in a special election to fill the seat of Ted Kennedy, elected Scott Brown, who had run on a pledge to be “the 41st vote” against Obamacare. 

With public resistance now unmistakable, Obama exploited a loophole in the Senate rules to negate the will of the country. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi thought it a good idea to provoke the crowds by any means possible, striding through the Capitol grounds with an enormous grin and a gavel the size of a Louisville slugger, surrounded by Black Caucus members who tried to replay the bridge scene at Selma and later charged the protesters with flinging racial slurs at them, which no one else ever seemed to have heard. Having been provoked, and then slandered, the protesters became even more angry. It’s no surprise that anger was key to the 2010 midterms, in which Democrats lost 63 House seats, and much of their chance to make any more mischief. Public opinion did count, after all.

"Sinclair Lewis’s 1920s never went away,” says Fred Siegel, citing Obama as the first American president to campaign against Main Street, in word, thought, and deed. There was “you didn’t build that!” said to every entrepreneur who imagined that his business had been his creation, and the comment on those clinging to guns and to God out of bitterness. But all that was just a prelude to the targeted attack on the middle class in his single and signature legislative creation. Last October, amid the troubled rollout of the website, some six million Americans who had purchased their plans on the individual market were stunned to find out that their plans were being canceled, and the new ones would not only cost them hundreds or thousands more but in many cases cause them to lose their own doctors and enjoy a less comprehensive level of care. 

Obama had reassured them again and again that if they liked their plans and their doctors, they would be able to keep them, but this proved inaccurate. For the first time in American history the cost of a massive social program would be concentrated on a small slice of the populace that was not rich, and in some instances, could not afford it. Those costs came in many different dimensions: Parents found they could not take sick children to the same hospitals they had used before. People with complex chronic conditions found that the teams of doctors who had worked together to treat them had been broken up. For the people who had been insured through the individual market the elites had little compassion. Cancer patients who took their complaints to the press (and to the Republicans) were “fact checked” and then viciously attacked by the Democrats, among them Harry Reid, who called them all liars. “We have to pass the bill, so that you can find out what’s in it,” Nancy Pelosi infamously said. People had finally found out and they were furious. 

In February 2010, in the midst of the row over Obamacare’s passage, 80 highly credentialed experts in health care, graduates of and teachers in the best schools in the country, sent an open letter to the president and the leaders of Congress insisting the bill be passed. The Affordable Care Act, they maintained, would “cover more than 30 million people who would otherwise have gone uninsured. .  .  . Provide financial help to make coverage for millions of working families. .  .  . Strengthen competition and oversight of private insurance. .  .  . Provide unprecedented protection for Americans living with chronic illness and disabilities. .  .  . Make significant investments in community health centers, prevention, and wellness. .  .  . Increase financial support to states to finance expanded Medicaid insurance coverage, eliminate the Medicare prescription drug donut hole .  .  . provide a platform to improve the quality of the health care system .  .  . [and] reduce the federal budget deficit over the next ten years and beyond.” 

They were not alone. “Historians will see this health care bill as a masterfully crafted piece of legislation,” wrote Jonathan Chait in the magazine Herbert Croly cofounded. “The new law untangles the dysfunctionalities of the individual insurance market while fulfilling the political imperative of leaving the employer-provided system in place. .  .  . They put into place numerous reforms to force efficiency into a wasteful system. They found hundreds of billions of dollars in payment offsets, a monumental task in itself. And they will bring economic and financial security to tens of millions of Americans who would otherwise risk seeing their lives torn apart.”

It did none of these things. It did not fix the dysfunctions of the individual market; it destroyed it. It did not save money; it squandered billions. It did not bring peace and security to tens of millions of people; it took it away from them. The best and the brightest had made their predictions. They were wrong.

Today, Obamacare is a technical mess and a public relations disaster, a bomb that has been radioactive to all who come near it. Thus far, it has terminated the careers of almost 70 national Democrats, given the Republicans control of 26 states, and brought in a new crew of GOP leaders inspired by fighting it, just when it seemed that the well had run dry. It has overwhelmed Obama’s presidency, destroyed any chance to build a center-left coalition, or to pass any other big bills. As it was four years ago, it is the central issue in the midterm elections, and the reason the Democrats may lose big again. Obama did win reelection, but it is now widely understood it was because the bill’s main provisions were designed not to go into effect until a year after that election.

Supporters of the president profess themselves thrilled with the progress since last fall. True, Obamacare is still alive, but it is on life support—hooked up to IV drips of varied descriptions in the intensive care unit and worlds away from being that jewel in the liberal crown that they imagined in 2009, a historic achievement for which the country would be forever grateful. In Kentucky, the Democrats’ senatorial candidate and a rising star in the party celebrated her win over her primary rivals last week by blowing off her president and all of his doings, and refusing to say that she would have voted for his historic and signature act. As even the New Republic admitted, the launch was “a fiasco that could haunt progressives for years to come.” Also, “Liberalism has spent the better part of the past century attempting to prove that it could competently and responsibly extend the state into new reaches of American life. With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the administration has badly injured that cause.” One could say also that for the better part of the past century intellectual liberals had been attempting to prove they had superior judgment, and that hadn’t gone too well, either. But to note that it was a setback for their belief in themselves and their wisdom might have been a little too much to expect.

But that doesn’t mean that we cannot draw some conclusions about them and their class and their kind. One is that they were perhaps not as good as they thought they were, and perhaps deserved to be not that much listened to. Another is that the people who shine in the faculty lounge ought to stay in it, that novelists have not been good judges of political horseflesh, and that if you really believe you belong to an aristocracy of the intellect, you most likely do not. The intellectual salons include a whole lot of windbags, and would have excluded a number of very effective real-world practitioners, such as Truman and Reagan and Ike. 

“It is actually harder to do some of these things in reality than we thought when we put it down on paper,” a book review in the Washington Post quoted a former Obama health care adviser as saying. This can stand as the last word for the great aspiration, and the people who held it. They wanted their chance, and they got it. They had it. They blew it. They’re done.

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

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