The mark of a leader
Obama's willingness to take political risks for a moral cause
The mark of a leader
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
By the turn of the next decade, Americans may well find it amazing that there once was a time when insurance companies could summarily cancel their health coverage simply because they got sick; a time when companies could summarily slap lifetime caps on health coverage; a time when companies frequently denied coverage to children with pre-existing medical conditions; a time when tens of millions of Americans lived and worked without any coverage at all, dreading the one serious illness that would decimate their savings; a time, indeed, when America was unique among advanced western nations for its insistence that health insurance coverage be governed by Darwinian principles.
And, 10 years from now, Americans may well be amazed that the new normal was resisted so vociferously by the Republican opposition. All the current talk about "socialism" and "the death of freedom" and the onset of "Armageddon" (House GOP leader John Boehner, yesterday: "We are 24 hours from Armageddon") is likely to seem quaint - much like actor Ronald Reagan's 1961 warning about the health-care-for-seniors concept that would soon be known as Medicare ("one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free"); and much like the GOP attacks on the 1935 Social Security proposal to fashion a safety net for old folks (New Jersey GOP Senator A. Harry Moore: "It would take all the romance out of life. We might as well take a child from the nursery, give him a nurse, and protect him from every experience that life affords").
Barack Obama has long signaled his desire to be a transformational figure - he said during a primary season debate that he admired those rare presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, who "changed the trajectory of America" - and while we don't yet know whether he and his party will pay a short-term political price for the passage of health reform, there is no question that he has pulled off an historic domestic policy achievement. While the road to passage was long and predictably ugly, the bottom line is that he got something done that had bedeviled every Democratic president (as well as Republican Richard Nixon) since the era of radio.
His conservative critics no doubt will continue to hate him - most consequential presidents are hated, just read your history - but his most sensible detractors will surely take note of his stubborn tenacity in this fight, his willingness to gamble his political future on a transformational crusade, and, having taken note, they may grudgingly come to respect him.
Since no fight in our hyperpartisan era is ever concluded, we can expect ongoing attacks on the health reforms - in the courts, in state legislatures, and, most importantly, in the realm of spin between now and November. In fact, Boehner foreshadowed some of the Republican spin during his attack on health reform last night, on the House floor, prior to the final vote: "We have failed to listen to America. We have failed to reflect the will of our constituents. And when we fail to reflect that will, we fail ourselves and we fail our country."
Translation: Obama and the Democrats, by pushing successfully for health care reform, have defied the will of the people, and therefore, in Boehner's words, "they are writing themselves a ticket to minority status."
I'll address Boehner's latter prediction momentarily, but first, a couple thoughts on the substance of his remarks. I find it fascinating that the Republicans keep harping so much about Obama's refusal to govern by the polls - given the fact that, when George W. Bush was president, they took robust pride in Bush's dismissive attitude toward the polls, and his determination to govern in defiance of the polls for what he believed was right.
Bush made it quite clear that he paid no heed to the will of the people; as he remarked once on Fox News, "I make decisions on what I think is right for the United States based upon principles. I frankly don't give a damn about the polls." Republicans insisted at the time that this was the mark of a true leader - someone who did what he thought was right, regardless of public sentiment. As Senator Orin Hatch said early last year, "George W. Bush is not leaving the presidency with chapped fingers from holding them up in the wind." As Rudy Giuliani said of Bush during the 2004 Republican convention, "There are many qualities that make a great leader, but having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader."
Obama has stuck with his belief about health reform - just as previous leaders have defied the polls in the interests of promoting politically risky policies. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson launched the push for sweeping civil rights legislation, despite the fact - little noted today - that their pursuit did not reflect the will of the people. At the time Kennedy took office, only six percent of northerners considered civil rights to be the nation's top issue. In June '63, Gallup found that only 49 percent of Americans supported a sweeping civil rights law. That summer, when civil rights marchers gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to push for such a law, only 23 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the rally. And in October '64, four months after LBJ had already signed the historic law, 57 percent of Americans still agreed with the statement that "the racial integration of Negroes in this country is going ahead too fast."
The point was, the civil rights law was deemed to be a moral imperative, even if it meant (as LBJ himself accurately predicted) that the Democrats would lose the South politically for a generation or more. Obama is showing similar leadership by taking a political risk on health reform. It may well prove unpopular in the short run; Democratic candidates may well get hammered in the November congressional midterms, far beyond the normal losses that a president's party suffers in these elections. Boehner - with his prediction that Democrats are writing themselves a ticket to minority status - certainly thinks (and hopes) so.
But Obama and the Democrats at least have something affirmative to sell (particularly to their own base), and they can take pride that they have braved strong headwinds to strengthen the American social contract. As future generations will surely note.
Which brings to the fun part of today's dispatch. Remember - not too long ago, in the wake of Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts - when conservative and Republicans were spiking the ball in the end zone and doing their triumphalist dance? The envelopes, please...
Fifth place winner, Philip Klein of the American Spectator: "I thought conservatives would need a miracle to prevent (health reform) from becoming law. Well, we got our miracle...Obama's top domestic priority is in critical condition - and fading fast."
Fourth place, blogger Michelle Malkin: "The voters of Massachusetts effectively killed Obama's plans."
Third place, the Jan. 22 headline on the Powerline blog: "The Day Obamacare Died."
Second place, radio host Hugh Hewitt: "ObamaCare - whether the House or Senate version - is dead."
And the grand prize goes to Fred Barnes, minister of propaganda at The Weekly Standard: "The health care bill, ObamaCare, is dead with not the slightest prospect of resurrection."
But why should they rest on their laurels? Bill Kristol, the neoconservative soothsayer who works with Barnes, has now offered a brand new prognostication about health reform. He declared yesterday on Fox News: "I predict in 2013 the bulk of this will be repealed."
This is the same guy who said that the Sunnis and Shiites would get along splendidly during our war in Iraq. Care to lay odds on his new prediction?