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November 20, 2013 4:59 PM Irrational Exuberance Over Obamacare’s Problems

By Ed Kilgore

In these days of hyper-polarization, some readers may wonder why I always treat with great respect the findings and analysis of conservative number-cruncher Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics. I don’t always agree with what he says, but he’s willing to say uncomfortable things to people on his side of the barricades when data and history so indicate, as he did in a column today pouring ice water on the popular conservative idea that a collapse of Obamacare would lead to some sort of “existential crisis” for liberalism or “the welfare state.”

I’ve said before that our press corps suffers from histrionic personality disorder, and this is but the latest example. Wasn’t it just weeks ago that we were told the government shutdown could cost Republicans the House? But elections and the ideological orientation of the country don’t turn on such immediate, short-term events. The arc of history is long. Both parties, and both ideologies, have plenty of wins ahead of them, and neither is likely to suffer a knockout blow.
Let’s start by observing that we’re barely 50 days into Obamacare’s launch. While the program is clearly in much graver political danger than was the case a month ago, it’s still unclear that the ship won’t eventually be righted. Maybe the so-called “young invincibles” will sign up in droves, or maybe they won’t and the program will go into a death spiral. We just don’t know yet.
But even if the Affordable Care Act does collapse, I’m not sure that the liberal project will be kneecapped, much less destroyed. Americans have very short memories, and the pendulum will swing back quickly if Republicans mess up their next opportunity to govern.

Trende then goes through a long series of historical examples (dating back to 1890) of big political calamities for one party or the other that was followed in relatively short order, and sometimes almost instantly, by a big recovery, often because the other party over-estimated its advantages and overreached. And he notes that even in specific policy areas a misstep or defeat doesn’t necessarily take issues off the table:

Even the last failed attempt at health care reform, in the early 1990s, didn’t actually spell the end of reform efforts for the next two decades, as many suggest. It just proceeded incrementally, with some fairly significant steps. Congress in 1996 passed the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, which established health insurance portability. The following year, Republicans helped to establish the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which today provides health care for almost 8 million children. In 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, Congress was consumed with a debate over the Patient’s Bill of Rights, with the only major disagreement involving whether plaintiffs should be able to collect punitive damages while suing their HMO.

Sean even suggests an Obamacare “disaster” could produce an even more ambitious Democratic health care initiative:

[E]ven if Obamacare does collapse, the most liberal aspects of the American health care system — Medicare and Medicaid — will still be around. Democrats have already been pretty straightforward about what their “Plan B” will be: Medicare/Medicaid for all. Both programs are still very popular, and the Democratic standard-bearer in 2016 would almost certainly campaign on expanding them, perhaps to those over 55 for Medicare and under 25 for Medicaid. I’m not sure that would be a losing issue, even with an Obamacare collapse. In 10 years, I think it’d be a winner.

That is indeed the “silver lining” that a lot of single payer advocates have been seeing in the troubles involving the Obamacare exchanges, which are complex and hard to administer in no small part because of their reliance on a managed competition model many liberals never favored in the first place.

Trende thinks the major lesson here is that the ideological clash of ideas that activists often perceive in political events just isn’t shared by that many voters:

The American electorate is not intensely ideological, and is more motivated by things such as the state of the economy, whether there is peace abroad (or whether we’re winning a war), and whether the president is suffering from a major scandal.

I would agree in part, but would go further to say that today’s radicalized Republican Party has goals that have never commanded a majority of the electorate, and are even less likely to do so in the future. It is capable of making big gains when Democrats screw up, but is determined to risk them immediately to pursue an unpopular agenda. If the worst (or from their point of view, the best) happens and conservatives gain the power to implement that agenda, then the odds are extremely high they will, as Trende puts it, “mess up their next opportunity to govern.” And in that respect, ideology really does matter—when it collides with reality.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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