Posted by Curt on 10 January, 2015 at 12:51 pm. 2 comments already!


William Voegeli:

In the Time magazine issue published after the 2008 election—whose cover depicted Barack Obama as Franklin Roosevelt—Peter Beinart anticipated a new “era of liberal hegemony” that would last until “Sasha and Malia have kids.”

President Obama is not yet a grandfather, but his era of liberal hegemony only appears to have lasted months, not decades. Photoshopping gave Obama the pince-nez and cigarette holder that were FDR’s trademarks but could not conjure the startling congressional majorities of the 1930s. The Depression and New Deal left Republicans discredited, irrelevant, and shattered. GOP House and Senate majorities of 62 percent and 58 percent, respectively, after the 1928 election shrank to caucuses of 20 percent and 17 percent after 1936. Under Obama the trajectory has been the opposite: Republicans have gone from 41 percent of the House seats after the 2008 election to 57 percent after 2014 and from 40 senators to 54.

Inevitably, Democrats are trying to figure out why the present that dismays them is so much less congenial than the future they recently anticipated. Some have begun to disparage Obamacare, the incumbent’s most FDR-like achievement. Half of the 60 Democratic senators who voted for the Affordable Care Act in December 2009—the exact number needed to prevent its being filibustered to death, since all Republicans opposed it—are no longer in the Senate. These ex-senators include eight who were defeated by Republicans, and eight more who chose not to run again and were succeeded by Republicans.

One of the latter, Tom Harkin of Iowa, recently told a reporter, “I look back and say we should have either done [health care reform] the correct way or not done anything at all.” Charles Schumer of New York, in the remnant of Democrats whose Senate careers have survived Obamacare, voiced similar sentiments in a National Press Club speech three weeks after the 2014 elections. “Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them” in 2008, Schumer said. “We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem—health care reform.” Arguing that 85 percent of Americans had health insurance they were satisfied with when Democrats took power in 2009, and few of the uninsured voted at all, much less on the basis of health policy, Schumer contended, “To aim a huge change in mandate at such a small percentage of the electorate made no political sense.”

Despite these recent recriminations, Harkin and Schumer had been like most Democrats in believing that Obamacare was good policy that would quickly prove to be good politics. In 2012 Harkin praised the Affordable Care Act for bringing us closer to the day when “every person has affordable, quality health care.” Months before Democrats were routed in the 2010 midterms, Schumer predicted that Obamacare would be an asset to politicians who had supported it and a liability for its opponents.

Not just health care policy but the value and political feasibility of modern liberalism’s raison d’être is at stake. The main point of Schumer’s recent speech was “Democrats must embrace government” as “what we believe in,” “what unites our party,” and as “the only thing that’s going to get the middle class going again.” He thought that Obamacare was regrettable to the extent it had complicated rather than furthered that fundamental purpose.

The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky strongly endorsed Schumer’s argument: Since “Democrats are the party of government,” the “one principle they all subscribe to is a belief that the federal government can and must intervene in the economic and social spheres to even things out.” The party will never create political openings for new government interventions, however, until it solves the public relations problem that afflicts existing ones. Democrats, he wrote, have done a “pathetic job” of getting people to appreciate “the dozens of ways in which the federal government already helps them and their communities.” The resulting “hatred of government we see in this country is sickeningly childish and hypocritical.” Instead of acknowledging and appreciating government successes against water pollution, for example, most people “just think that lake cleaned itself somehow over the years.”

Another liberal columnist, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, agreed and went further, insisting that Obamacare, rightly understood, would greatly help the Democratic cause. That Obamacare is unpopular and voting booth poison is the Democrats’ “own fault.” They’ve “utterly failed” to make voters aware that Affordable Care Act components include popular benefits like preventing health insurance companies from rejecting applicants with preexisting medical conditions and allowing parents to keep sons and daughters as old as 25 on their policies. Democrats’ “spinelessness” has “allowed Republicans and conservatives to depict a measure that improves the lives and health of millions of Americans as harmful, even un-American,” Hiltzik says.

The gullibility of the millions of Americans who have been helped by Obama-care, but can be led to believe it’s harmful, goes without saying. Such sentiments confirm that today’s Democrats are only quasi-democratic. They’re adamant about government of and for the people, but dubious when it comes to government by the people. Yes, they say, government must intervene in the economic and social spheres to do what’s good for the people, but the people are often too limited to understand what’s good for them and too ungrateful to appreciate the benefactions government is already delivering.

The voters’ cognitive deficiencies are a retrospective problem for Democrats, as Tomasky and Hiltzik point out, but also a prospective one. They mean that new government interventions cannot be secured through candor and clarity, but require guile and subterfuge, a position made clear by MIT economics professor and Obama administration adviser Jonathan Gruber. Explaining, in 2012, why the Affordable Care Act taxes insurance companies, which will pass along the costs to policyholders, rather than taxing the insured directly, Gruber said, “It’s a very clever, you know, basic exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.”

In 2013 he told a University of Pennsylvania audience that the ACA “was written in a tortured way” so that neither the Congressional Budget Office nor the public would see its individual mandate to buy heath insurance as a new tax. “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” Gruber concluded. “Call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

When, days after the 2014 midterm elections, Gruber’s remarks were publicized, Democratic politicians and journalists scrambled to denounce them, and Gruber himself apologized in congressional testimony for his “glib, thoughtless, and sometimes downright insulting comments.” Disdaining and deceiving the people are indeed affronts to democracy, but are not the only transgressions against American self-government. Gruber’s arrogance was gratuitous, but the deceptions he smugly praised served a Democratic purpose: convincing people that government interventions that can bestow formidable benefits while imposing negligible costs are, despite sounding too good to be true, low-hanging fruit ready to be harvested.

If Democrats were forthright and respectful they would have enough confidence in their proposals and their countrymen to speak plainly. They would say: “We’re not idiots; you’re not idiots; and only an idiot could believe it’s possible for government to do big things that help lots of people without also imposing big costs, through taxes and regulations, that adversely affect lots of people. The reason you should support the Democratic agenda is not that we’re magicians who can make something out of nothing. It’s that the benefits of our programs will exceed their costs—so much so that our country and most of our citizens will be better off paying the higher taxes and complying with the more stringent regulations than we would be absent the taxes, the regulations, and the benefits they make possible.”

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