I’ve been pondering the common analogy between President Obama’s support for healthcare reform (HCR for short) and President Bush’s support for the surge in Iraq, both in the face of strong popular resistance. The political arguments for and against have been essentially the same, except with the parties reversed.
Three years ago, President Bush spoke of the need to do what is right for the nation, even though the public may not have agreed with him at time. Today, President Obama speaks of doing what is right without regard for what is popular. The opponents of both presidents criticized them relentlessly for ignoring the will of the people.
This analogy makes almost everyone uncomfortable, since almost no one who supported the surge in 2007 supports HCR now. The analogy forces both sides to look in the mirror and realize they are not that different from their opponents in certain regards. Yet both sides sense an inherent validity to the analogy’s logic.
In America politics, we often reserve our greatest praise for those who acted on principle in spite of the political cost, only to be proven right in the long run. Of course, such praise is offered mainly in hindsight. If the Redcoats prevailed in 1776, few of us would praise the principled courage of the Founding Fathers, assuming we knew who they were.
One of the hardest things to watch is one’s bitter opponents being praised for their farsighted commitment to principle. Today, many conservatives chafe at the popularity of Medicare and other entitlements, yet will not risk criticizing them openly. On the other side, President Obama personally knows the frustration of having to explain again and again and again, after the success of the surge, why he opposed it in the first place.
Now that the House has passed the Senate HCR bill, we may encounter another high-stakes test of the hypothesis that success can transform public opinion. Democrats seem confident that HCR will become the next Medicare, regardless of the price they pay at the polls this November. In spite of Republicans’ warnings that the bill will wreak havoc on our health care system and our entire economy, there is an undercurrent of anxiety that fears precisely what the Democrats hope for: the creation of another entitlement that is politically invulnerable. As Mark Steyn wrote earlier today,
[The Democrats] bet is that [HCR] can’t be undone, and that over time, as I’ve been saying for years now, governmentalized health care not only changes the relationship of the citizen to the state but the very character of the people.
Personally, I don’t consider the character of the American people to be all that malleable, although I think we may come to accept healthcare as an entitlement.
Of course, before we figure that out, we’ll have to see whether this round of reform can produce something as enduring as Medicare or Social Security.