President Obama convened his summit on health care reform at the White House yesterday. Whether the event will prove to be the beginning of the end for the dysfunctional system we have today remains to be seen but there are encouraging signs.
The event showed the many ways in which the political landscape has changed since 1993 when the Clintons tried to reform health care. Today, business leaders have seen their health care costs explode and so they have mostly set aside their fear of government intervention in the market. Health care is at the root of the comparative disadvantage Detroit faces compared to foreign cars, but the same can be said for virtually all American companies.
Secondly, Obama is not Hillary. Yesterday, he joked, he made sure Republicans got the microphone, he issued no fiats and he pledged himself to an open-door process. How different from Mrs. Clinton’s threatening Sen. Bill Bradley that if he did not support a particular provision, the administration would "demonize" him. Threatening senators, and in this case a senator who was inclined to be a natural ally, was not the way to proceed. It is impossible to imagine Obama engaging in such behavior.
Third, many more people lack health insurance today than fourteen years ago. And, not everyone who lacks health care fits the standard prototype of poverty. For example, me. Since I left the restaurant business in 2003, I have never been able to find a plan that works. One plan, offered through a professional writers association had great benefits, even dental, for $800 a month. No thanks. Another was affordable, with a $1,000 deductible so it was essentially catastrophic insurance and no more. I gave up skiing instead. I know that writers have become the new coolies in our culture, but you would think that there would be a way for a self-employed, not untalented, reasonably hard-working person to find a health plan that worked. There isn’t.
The most important reason Obama and the Congress have a shot at actually reforming health care is the pitiful state of the opposition. At yesterday’s summit, Sen Charles Grassley of Iowa (R-IA), voiced his concern that allowing private citizens to enroll in the plan offered to government employees would "crowd out" private insurers. But, if consumers would prefer a non-profit plan, and if we as citizens want our government to extend that non-profit plan to all of us, how does that crimp anyone’s freedom? People will be free to maintain their for-profit private plans under any conceivable scenario.
In 1993, the GOP argued that under Hillarycare, the government, not your doctor, would decide what kind of care you could receive, which was never the case. And, promising "choice" in a consumer culture is always a smart strategy. But, here was Grassley, worried about giving Americans a choice of plan. That is a losing strategy if ever there was one, not least because he himself is enrolled in that government plan.
The GOP will have to decide whether to back their pro-business interests or their ideological presuppositions. It was fitting that the ideological concern was raised by Grassley, a Senator who was first elected in the 1980 Reagan landslide. (He defeated a truly great Senator, John Culver, whose son is currently Iowa’s governor.) For, what we are watching in these first weeks of the Obama administration is the dismantling of Reaganism. Eight years of George W. Bush’s policies put the "lazy" back into "laissez-faire." Now, the Obama administration is putting an end to the idolatry of the market that was at the heart of Reagan’s weltanschauung. Yet, like FDR, Obama is really saving the market from itself. Despite Republican objections, "socialized medicine" is not in the public policy medicine cabinet.
The other part of Reaganism, his blustery foreign policy, is dying a different and more comic death. Republicans as well as Democrats applauded Obama’s plan to bring the Iraq War to a close. And, this week, we found no Republican leader willing to stand up to Rush Limbaugh: How could a voter expect them to stand up to Putin? The analogy is especially rich now that Limbaugh insists on dressing like a Russian gangster.
The Republicans are a party lost at sea, with an ideological compass that can’t find true North and no policy paddles to row for home. They face a President with a gift for communicating complex ideas in a hopeful and concise manner. Unless the economy drags Obama down like it did Lehman Brothers, we are witnessing the beginning of a realignment. Somewhere in the heavens, Msgr. John A. Ryan is smiling.