I hate to be a pessimist, but I think the Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare and the individual mandate has dealt a serious blow to Mitt Romney's election hopes. Right now Republicans are in danger of playing the losing hand of making the election about Obamacare. If it comes to an up-or-down vote on the bill, Republicans will lose.
First let's consider what might have been. If the Supreme Court had voted 5-4 that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, the President would have had egg on his face. He would have looked incompetent. Remember, this election is not going to be decided by people who feel passionately about the issues. It's going to be decided by people in the middle who don't care much one way or another but are asking, "What's in it for me?"
Had the Supreme Court said "Nyet," Obama would have had nothing to show for his four years of labor. People would say, "This guy doesn't know what he's doing. Let's get somebody else in there who can get the job done." That would have been nice. But now that Obama has won, people are saying, "Wow, he gotten done this thing that Presidents since Truman have been trying to do. He must be pretty competent. And it sounds like I might be getting something out of it as well."
You might want to make the argument that a very large number of people are going to end up with less than they had before or that we're headed down the road to a system like Britain's where doctors and hospitals make you feel better about being sick but very little else. But none of that will become clear for many years. Right now the majority of the bill's provisions don't even take effect until 2014, well into Obama's second term. So the attitude, to paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, will be, "Let's not repeal this thing before we find out what's in it. Let's wait and see what happens."
Tea Party members have many of the same delusions as liberals. Because they are opinionated and articulate and get a lot more press and publicity, they tend to overestimate their numbers. In fact, the people who are going to cast their vote on principle are a very small minority. I remember an evening somewhere around the run-up to the 2010 election when I was supposed to take the train out from Washington to meet my sister and brother-in-law in the small town of Culpeper, Virginia. They were going to a local Tea Party meeting at a time when the movement, according to the papers at least, was sweeping the country. I forgot my cell phone, however, and the train was delayed and by the time I arrived they had gone on to the meeting. I started asking people where the Tea Party meeting was being held. Tea Party? Nobody knew what I was talking about. I made the entire run of bars and restaurants along the main street and nobody had ever heard of the Tea Party. Finally I was picked up by a friendly cop who drove me to all the likely venues -- the high school, the fire house, the country club -- no luck. About two hours later we finally found them at the local library. There had been four people at the Tea Party meeting -- my sister, my brother-in-law, the founder and her husband.
It is all those people who had never heard of the Tea Party who are going to decide the election.
So what's happened is we've taken the first big step toward a nationally health insurance on the model of Britain or Canada. There's one glaring law that is going to make it difficult to go backward. Nelson's First Law of Government Benefits (named after the late economist Arthur Nelson) is: "Once you've given someone a government benefit, it is almost impossible to take it back." Whatever it is people perceive they are getting out of Obamacare -- whether it is putting a 25-year-old child on the parents' health insurance or expanding Medicaid up into the middle class or whatever -- people are not going to vote for a candidate who is promising to take it away.
That's why Mitt Romney's initial response -- "I will repeal Obamacare" -- is a loser, pure and simple. You can argue until the cows come home that Obamacare will ruin small businesses, cripple medical innovation, and create long waiting lines in doctors' offices. The majority simply isn't interested. All that is still way down the line and maybe we'll be smarter than Europe and Canada and do it differently. To most people, the important thing is: "The government is now going to help pay for my healthcare. I'll probably get something out of it." Democrats are smart. They know what they're doing. Once these benefits are promised, people will stick with them whether they materialize or not. Even though the British live in a system where you have to wait six months to have a root-canal done on an aching tooth, they still think they have the greatest medical system in the world. After all, it's free.
Now I admit this is a very depressing scenario. But I think it's time to be depressed. The story is that Chief Justice John Roberts backed down on the case because he didn't want to have to face off with President Obama. But because Chief Justice Roberts didn't want to do it now, some other President or national public figure is going to have to face up to the entire American public somewhere down the line. Or perhaps not. Because truly, the Democrats may have won this issue and are pushing us toward a society where everybody thinks they're going to be able to live off everybody else. Right now the distance between the United States and Greece has been severely shortened.
In the early 1960s a young Roman Polanski made a short experimental film behind the Iron Curtain that perfectly expressed the problems of Communism. Two tramps are running through a snow-covered forest headed for somewhere that never becomes clear. They are traveling by taking turns carrying each other. One jumps on the other's back and trots for a couple of hundred yards. Then he hops down and they very formally switch places. They go on for another hundred yards or so and then switch places again. And so it goes.
What happens in the space of the four-minute film is that the distances the one tramp carries the other keeps getting shorter. After four or five exchanges, the carrying tramp only carries the other a short yards before he quits and wants to be carried again. Finally one tramp jumps on the other's back and they go nowhere. He gets down and they stand mute looking at each other for a moment. End of film.
It is a perfect critique of Communism. It's amazing Polanski was ever able to get it through the Communist censors, although they were probably too stupid to realize what it was about. This is what happens under socialism and Communism. When everybody becomes convinced that everybody else is taking care of things, everybody ends up doing nothing and the economy comes to a stop. Take a look at Greece now to see it in action.
Our present-day enthusiasts for such schemes are always confident that it is only a matter of "political will" to make everybody pay enough taxes to keep the system going. I worked at the weekly The Bond Buyer on Wall Street during the 1990s (Spectator saloon correspondent Joe Mysak was the editor) and almost every article in the paper always ended with the same comment that it would be just a matter of "political will" for politicians to raise taxes high enough to pay for whatever scheme was being funded by the municipal bonds so bondholders would get their money back. During the Depression, bond holders had tried to start a national movement called "Pay Your Taxes!"
But it doesn't work that way. The great wildcard of all these socialistic schemes is tax collection. Greece may be able to balance its budget on paper taxing people at a rate of 65 percent, but it only happens on paper. Tax evasion in Greece is now a bigger problem than municipal pensions. Almost 50 percent of Italy's economy is already "underground," meaning it's dodging the tax collector. People in all these countries still take six-week vacations and retire early or go on disability at 50 because they are confident somebody will still be out there working to run the economy. But it eventually gets to the point where almost no one is working or -- as it happening at this moment -- there is no money left to pay anyone. Europeans have long since adjusted to what it means to pay "European levels of taxation." The same thing is now starting to happen here. The IRS reports that tax fraud is becoming rampant, which only means that people are starting to anticipate what it's going to be like to paying for things like Obamacare.
Still, the Democrats have won this round. It won't be long before CNN and USA Today are running articles asking, "What is Obamacare going to do for YOU?" Republicans can try to warn people. They can talk about the dangers of a society where half of wage earners no longer pay taxes, where one in five people are on food stamps and where Social Security Disability has become the new welfare. But all these programs only swell the ranks of dependency and create new constituencies that see Obamacare as just the Next Big Benefit.
Republicans can win this election by talking about how Obama has ruined the economy and vowing to put the nation back to work. They won't be able to win by promising to repeal Obamacare.