By George F. Will
Thursday, January 21, 2010; A21
-- President Barack Obama, Dec. 15, on health-care legislation
Precipice, 1. a headlong fall or descent, esp. to a great depth.
-- Oxford English Dictionary
Trying to guarantee Americans the thrill of the precipice, the president dashed to Massachusetts on Sunday, thereby conceding that he had already lost Tuesday's Senate election, which had become a referendum on his signature program. By promising to cast the decisive 41st vote against the president's health-care legislation, the Republican candidate forced all congressional Democrats to contemplate this: Not even frenzied national mobilization of Democratic manpower and millions of dollars could rescue one of the safest Democratic seats in the national legislature from national dismay about the incontinent government expansion, of which that legislation is symptomatic.
Because the legislation is frightening and unpopular, Democrats have had to resort to serial bribery to advance it. Massachusetts voted immediately after the corruption of exempting, until 2018, union members from the tax on high-value health insurance plans. This tax was supposedly the crucial component of what supposedly was reform's primary goal: reducing costs.
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) thought Bill Clinton's presidency was crippled by the 1993 decision to pursue health-care reform rather than welfare reform. So slight was public enthusiasm for the former that Clinton's program never even came to a vote in the House or Senate, both controlled by Democrats. There was such fervor for welfare reform that in 1996, after two Clinton vetoes, he finally signed the decade's most important legislation.
In their joyless, tawdry slog toward passage of their increasingly ludicrous bill, Democrats now cling grimly to Robert Frost's axiom that "the best way out is always through." Their sole remaining reason for completing the damn thing is that they started it. The Democrats seem to have convinced themselves that they lost control of Congress in 1994 because they did not pass an unpopular health bill in 1993. Actually, their 1994 debacle had more to do with the arrogance and malfeasance arising from 40 years of control of the House of Representatives (e.g., the House banking scandal), a provocative crime bill (gun control, federal subsidies for midnight basketball) and other matters.
With one piece of legislation, President Obama and his congressional allies have done in one year what it took President Lyndon Johnson and his allies two years to do in 1965 and 1966 -- revive conservatism. Today, conservatism is rising on the steppingstones of liberal excesses.
Between FDR's reprimand by voters in the 1938 midterm congressional elections (partly because of his anti-constitutional plan to enlarge and pack the Supreme Court) and LBJ's 1964 trouncing of Barry Goldwater, there was no liberal legislating majority in Congress: Republicans and conservative Democrats combined to temper liberalism's itch to overreach. In 1965 and 1966, however, liberalism was rampant. Today, Democrats worrying about a reprise of 1994 should worry more about a rerun of the 1966 midterm elections, which began a Republican resurgence that presaged victories in seven of the next 10 presidential elections.
The 2008 elections gave liberals the curse of opportunity, and they have used it to reveal themselves ruinously. The protracted health-care debacle has highlighted this fact: Some liberals consider the legislation's unpopularity a reason to redouble their efforts to inflict it on Americans who, such liberals think, are too benighted to understand that their betters know best. The essence of contemporary liberalism is the illiberal conviction that Americans, in their comprehensive incompetence, need minute supervision by government, which liberals believe exists to spare citizens the torture of thinking and choosing.
Last week, trying to buttress the bovine obedience of most House Democrats, Obama assured them that if the bill becomes law, "the American people will suddenly learn that this bill does things they like." Suddenly?
If the Democrats' congressional leaders are determined to continue their kamikaze flight to incineration, they will ignore Massachusetts's redundant evidence of public disgust. They will leaven their strategy of briberies with procedural cynicism -- delaying certification of Massachusetts's Senate choice, or misusing "reconciliation" to evade Senate rules, or forcing the House to swallow its last shred of pride in order to rush the Senate bill to the president's desk. Surely any such trickery would be one brick over a load for some hitherto servile members of the Democratic House and Senate caucuses, giving them an excuse to halt their party's Gadarene rush toward the precipice.