Political Hay

Obamacare Won’t Kill Liberalism

It's awful, but it's not politically fatal.

By 11.21.13

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Could the failures of Obamacare extirpate American liberalism? That question has been the subject of much heavy breathing this week.

The health law “has put the reputation of Big Government progressivism at risk for at least this generation,” according to Todd Purdum. “At stake is the new, more ambitious, social-democratic brand of American liberalism introduced by Obama,” surmises Charles Krauthammer. Our own Josh Shnayer compares liberals playing defense to the bumbling protagonists in the movie Weekend at Bernie’s, propping up a corpse.

It’s certainly gratifying to imagine liberalism as a creature of the undead, stitched together from health insurance cancelation notices and Healthcare.gov 404 error message printouts, shuffling and shambling along until it finally lets out a groan, pirouettes, and crashes to the ground. And it almost seems plausible when you consider evidence like yesterday’s CBS poll, which found that President Obama’s approval rating has plunged to 37 percent. But it isn’t true. Politics is more complex than one law and progressivism is larger than Obamacare.

The most obvious reason for this is the fleeting nature of popular opinion. Pundits love to freeze-frame a particular political moment and assume it will last forever. But it never does. Just because progressivism is waning now doesn't mean it will be five years from now.

After the 2004 election, it was repeatedly argued that the Democratic Party faced an existential crisis. President Bush, with his tough stance against terrorism and lock on a sizable chunk of the Hispanic vote, seemed to have found the formula for GOP dominance, driven by Karl Rove’s dream of a “durable Republican majority.” Then the public soured on the war in Iraq and the economy tanked. Democrats won back the presidency and both houses of Congress in two elections.

Following Obama’s ascendance, there was a great outcry on the left: We were lied to! Rove’s realignment was always a fantasy, the country’s default politics were actually center-left, and, as the electorate underwent allegedly seismic demographic shifts, it was the Republican Party that faced the prospect of total extinction. “Conservatism is dead,” declared noted grave-digger Sam Tanenhaus in 2009. This delusion endured despite the 2010 election, which was dismissed as the dying gasp for the GOP’s aging voting base.

Now the left is once again in everyone's death pool. Obamacare is collapsing, faith in governmental activism is fading, and Sam Tanenhaus has gone missing despite numerous Amber Alerts called in by Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. and contributor Robert Stacy McCain. This is a conservative moment, to be sure, and it’s certainly possible that Obama’s presidency will set back liberalism for years, if not decades. Obamacare, with its tendrils goring multiple sectors of the economy, could be a far more politically destructive force than the Iraq war or Bill Clinton’s scandals. And with more mayhem on the way thanks to the employer mandate, Cadillac tax, and other policies, the potential for slow-motion, long-term damage to progressivism is very real.

But Obamacare holds danger for conservatives as well. As David Frum pointed out earlier this week, the failures of the individual exchanges have driven people—over 400,000 of them—to enroll in Medicaid. And with 30 governors supportive of the Medicaid expansion and 26 states working on its implementation, including red states like Arizona and North Dakota, that number is only going to increase. “If a ‘repeal ACA’ president takes office in 2017,” Frum writes, “he or she will face a reality in which repeal means stripping millions of people—potentially up to 10 million—of a government benefit they will by then have enjoyed for more than three years.”

Donald Rumsfeld once observed that the media loves to “begin with an illogical premise and proceed perfectly logically to an illogical conclusion.” Frum is two for three; his premise and reasoning are logical but his conclusion, that Republicans can’t touch this volume of Medicaid enrollments and should reform Obamacare rather than repeal it, falls short. Massive Medicaid signups mean bloating another expensive entitlement—a fiscal disaster—and making millions of voters more dependent on government—a political disaster for Republicans. For both reasons, the full energies of the right must be deployed to stop this. Quixotic dreams of Medicaid reform aren’t enough.

And yet, as Frum correctly observes, chucking people off of Medicaid is politically perilous—perhaps as perilous as chucking people off of their private health insurance plans. That’s the hill conservatives must climb and an important reason that reports of liberalism’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Progressivism survives by offering people government services without ever making them pay the full cost. As long as this can be done, it will remain a potent political force.

Maybe it can't always be done. Maybe investors will one day give up on American debt or the student loan bubble will pop. Or maybe we’ll go to war with Iran or another Gosnell-esque story will shine the spotlight on social issues. Maybe Obama will commit a huge gaffe or the Republican House leadership will be embroiled in scandal or Alan Grayson will abruptly burst into flames.

Who knows? Things change quickly in politics. Republicans might ride to victory in 2014 and even 2016 thanks to Obamacare and in spite of expanded Medicaid. But progressivism, the creature that limped through Woodrow Wilson’s overreaches, Johnson’s failures, and Carter’s impotencies, isn't going down that easily.

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About the Author

Matt Purple is The American Spectator's assistant managing editor.