Reticence Remains: The Country is Still Not Quite Behind the Democrats’ Health Care Overhaul

We have reached a strange lull in the health care debate. The tumult that arose at the end of July and peaked in the middle of August is still in full flow—recently, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) called President Barack Obama a liar during Obama’s address to Congress, while the Left retaliated with a congressional censure and accusations of racism—but more and more there is a sense that it is all, to some extent, window dressing. The rancor seems to be falling on increasingly deaf ears; we have seen it for two months and by now this conflict seems a little like a partisan tempest in a teapot.

On the issue of health care itself, Americans are still strangely ambivalent, considering the forces currently arrayed behind sweeping reform. The Democrats are powerful, determined and—to an unprecedented degree—united on the issue. Their rivals are essentially non-existent. For the moment, the marginalized GOP is too absurd to be considered a viable political force. (If they keep emoting faux-populist rage, the Republicans are going to cement their irrelevance for some time to come.) What is more, the Democrats are making history and they know it. When Obama said in his address to Congress, “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last,” you could feel the wind at his back, pushing him and his party down the causeway toward universal health coverage, potentially the Left’s biggest accomplishment since the 1960s. Progressivism is back, and these are its standard bearers.

Democrats ought to be careful, though, because the country as a whole still seems uncertain as to what it wants. Liberals tend to blame the Right for this underlying reticence, charging conservatives with fear-mongering. This is not quite right. Republican rhetoric tends to play to the people it is directed towards: the base. But the ones who still have Bush-Cheney ’04 bumper stickers on their cars are not the people Democrats need to win health care. The groups the party need are the wide swath of moderate Democrats and those moderate Republicans who, if their party of choice is depleted enough and the opposition makes enough sense, will switch ranks.

It is the moderates who are holding up the Democrats’ march of progress. They are not opposed to healthcare reform because Sarah Palin said the bill would include death panels; they wrote Palin off in 2008 (she probably caused half of them to switch their votes). They are holding out because of confusion about what reform entails and because of concerns about pouring their hard-earned money into a virtual black hole.

They are looking at their futures—and their children’s futures—in light of a growing deficit and are not liking what they see.

Then, too, there is the sense that so much this past year has been out of control—an economic collapse and an uncertain rebound, a war in Afghanistan that gets bloodier by the month and shows every sign of escalating, the continued pervasiveness of racial issues in the political arena in spite of the Obama administration’s efforts to keep them out—that sweeping reform is hardly the agenda of the nation. Giving the government more prerogative is not topping the list either (look at what happened when we let the last administration run free). People are tired, and they are done thinking big for the moment; the next mortgage payment seems big enough. The Democrats may be gazing starry-eyed at the history they are helping to unfold, but a majority of Americans are happy not to be getting rolled over by it.

Can the Democrats win over this audience? Probably not, unless they convince them that the health care measure is cost effective and, at the moment, not even Obama talks convincingly of cutting costs. Obama said in his address that we can trim half the cost of universal coverage by cutting wasteful spending. Does anyone believe this? Does he believe this? In the back of voters’ minds, a refrain is playing: this is the administration that bailed out Wall Street and is only just now getting around to setting regulations. What will health care look like if they get their hands on it?

The most highly watched health care bill of the moment, crafted by Sen. Max Baucus (D-M.T.), is currently making its way through Congress. It is already watered down a good deal from what the Democrats would like and yet it may still end up being too sweeping for the country as a whole. (It has a price tag of $856 billion over 10 years, by conservative estimates.) This is not to say the Democrats won’t get a bill through; in the Senate they have 59 of the 60 necessary votes and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) may well cross the aisle, giving them three-fifths of the chamber. The more interesting question is how their constituents will feel about the results of their legislation.

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