The immediate debate of the post-election era is whether Americans repudiated President Obama’s goals--as George F. Will, Kathleen Parker, and other conservatives insist this morning--or merely his ineffectuality.
Intoxicated by their (admittedly, very impressive) capture of the House of Representatives, the right’s commentariat insists that the election results prove that Americans detest government. We infinitely prefer, they say, to suffer through problems, or trust the magic of the markets, than to employ our government to solve them.
(As always, exceptions are made by conservatives for anything labeled “military” or “police” or “oil company subsidies.”)
As I have often argued in this space, the prevailing philosophy of the American people is not conservativism, but pragmatism, with a sturdy libertarian streak, as expressed in the Bill of Rights.
The Democrats lost the House on Election Day because, after four years in power, the Democratic program had not shown sufficient results.
Conservative America did not suddenly wake up and say, “Oh my God! How did all those Democrats get there?” Pragmatic America went to the polls and told the Democrats, “You had your chance. Let’s try the other guys again.”
History will no doubt conclude that George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and their Treasury secretaries, and the Federal Reserve, helped save the world from another Great Depression by bailing out banks and businesses in 2008 and 2009--and that the Democratic majorities in Congress, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid, made a wise, politically unselfish and patriotic decision to support the Keynesian economic medicine. And credit should go to John McCain and Sarah Palin as well: They backed Bush’s bailout in the fall of 2008, when they could have chosen to run as demagogues by opposing it.
But this was no little economic downturn. We were already living on borrowed money and leaking jobs to foreign countries when Wall Street started to totter. The stock market is making a comeback, but the Federal Reserve’s new $600 billion stimulus plan is aimed at those worrisome and important indicators, which still are lagging: employment and income.
True to their word--and believing they had done the best they could to stimulate the economy--the Democrats chose to address some long-term problems while in office: most notably a healthcare crisis that everyone involved--doctors, hospitals, American business--agreed needed solving.
It was here that the Democrats lost the argument. There is nothing inherently un-American in government support for healthcare. Or mandatory insurance. A quarter of the Republican vote on Tuesday came from old folks, many of whom were voting to protect their Medicare benefits. But when your party cannot point to results, and is distracted by the duties of running two wars and staving off another Great Depression, it falls prey to a shrewd, well-funded counterattack by the opposition.
We can give credit to the Republicans for the wit and passion with which they made their case that liberalism wasn’t working, but that is not to say that the GOP presented a coherent conservative philosophy that the voters chose as an alternative.
A bunch of the new GOP congressmen (whatever happened to the Republican year of the women, by the way?) are going to Washington, having promised seniors to defend Medicare. The others hope to eviscerate it. As always, in politics, it is easier to oppose than to create.
Here, for example, was the Democratic argument for healthcare reform. It was pragmatic (taking advantage of the current private insurance system, with no public option) but certainly cumbersome.
America is facing a crisis. There are 40 million citizens who cannot afford health insurance. They lack preventive care, wait until their illnesses are too far along, and show up at hospital emergency rooms, where the treatment they get is the most expensive, catastrophic kind. The cost of their care is passed on by the hospitals to the rest of us, via taxes or rate hikes levied by our insurance companies. As the cost of healthcare soars, our industries cannot compete with foreign rivals, whose costs are far lower. We lose jobs. Families without paychecks and benefits, or who cannot pay the rising insurance rates, or do not qualify because of pre-existing illnesses, lose their coverage. They join the 40 million others at the emergency rooms, and the crisis gets worse and worse.
Here was the Republican counter-argument.
Obama, the Muslim, wants to cut your Medicare to give healthcare benefits to lazy brown people and illegal immigrants. Unfeeling socialist bureaucrats will put you on waiting lists for treatments. You will have to plead to death panels to save your mother’s life.
Okay, I can see why the Republican argument won. But was that really a triumph for conservative philosophy? The real conservative argument, as I understand it, goes like this.
Healthcare is not a right. It is a commodity. If you cannot afford it, it’s because you are not working hard enough. Our economy wisely rewards winners, and government’s attempts to help the losers deprives the winners of their just rewards and pleasures. Social programs encourage dependency. The federal government should drop Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and allow unregulated insurance and pharmaceutical companies and Wall Street securities firms to turn profits supplying the retirement and healthcare needs of the aging American workforce. If the automobile industry or other sectors fail, and jobs go overseas, Americans need to work harder for less and be happy with their lot.
Well, I will say this about some of the Tea Party candidates. They actually had the guts and the philosophical consistency to present the true conservative argument on Medicare, Social Security, and healthcare. They voiced other conservative theories as well: that women who are raped should go to jail (or maybe it is their doctors) for having an abortion. Or that the Christian faith is more important than freedom of religion, or the teaching of science. (The First Amendment says what?)
And, overwhelmingly, the Christine O’Donnells and the Sharron Angles and the Carl Paladinos lost. They lost to nobodies like Christopher Coons, to arch-villains like Harry Reid, and to liberals like Andrew Cuomo. Heck. Joe Miller lost to a write-in candidate. Even in Alaska.
The 2010 election was a corrective exercise, not an ideological referendum. The message to American politicians was pretty simple: The beatings will continue until morale improves.
Americans want problems solved, and concluded that the Democratic solutions were not working. The voters will happily kick the Republicans out, as they did in 2006 and 2008, if things don’t get better.