The Irreconcilable Differences of a Health-Care DebateBy Charles P. Pierce, EsquireTHE ENCHANTED ISLANDS OF CHILDREN'S PHILOSOPHY /// Consensus has broken down entirely, and the Supreme Court decision will solve nothing so long as you've got Michele Bachmann calling the president a health-care dictator.
At one point in the proceedings on Tuesday, as I was wandering among the huddled masses on the steps of the Supreme Court building, wherein the last "shred of freedom" (according to Wisconsin's dim-bulb senator, Ron Johnson) was hanging by a veritable thread, a group of high-school kids wearing nametags that identified themselves as belonging to "Christian Discoveries" arrived on the sidewalk. Apparently, they had just concluded a tour of the Capitol across the street. They were quickly formed up as a kind of cheering squad by a doughy chap in a button-down shirt and the kind of buzzcut John Goodman wears in The Big Lebowski. As they began to chant — another variation of the Hey, ho... theme, which was sort of the Chuck Berry riff of Day Two's public protests — the putative choirmaster rolled up on me.
"SEE? SEE THESE KIDS? IF YOUR SIDE WON, THESE KIDS WOULDN'T EVEN BE ALIVE!"
What, exactly, I asked him rather mildly, was my "side"? And how would either side of this argument have prevented these otherwise healthy white Christian adolescents from being born? Am I Clarence The Angel?
"OH," he replied, "I THOUGHT YOU WERE ONE OF THEM, YOU KNOW, A PRO-OBAMACARE."
Not exactly sure how he came up with that. Could have been the hair. Or the beard. Or the denim jacket with the Kamloops Blazers pin. But, somehow, I had been run through this man's mental ideological abacus and come out the other side as someone who, if he had his way, would have strangled all the Christian Discoverers in their cribs. And that was pretty much all the tribalism I could stand for one day.
Nothing is going to be solved by this decision. (It's possible that the court could roll back all the relevant precedents to the sort of pre-New Deal utopia favored by the Koch and Paul families, but I just don't think Chief Justice John Roberts is in for that much revolution on his watch. This comes strictly from the elbows, of course. For more informed legal speculation, I'd refer you to the indispensable Dahlia Lithwick. And Jon Cohn of The New Republic is good today on the nexus of law and health-care policy.) That's the hilarious fact hiding in all the superheated rhetoric and ballpark journalism surrounding the case: If the law is upheld, the political assaults on it will continue, night and day, in a thousand different places. Even in the 1990's, when the Republican party embarked on a campaign to de-legitimize a Democratic president that ended up with a pursuit of that president's penis, both parties agreed that something had to be done about the state of the American health-care system. That happens to be why we first encountered the individual mandate. It was the critical part of the conservative, market-based alternative to what had become known as "Hillarycare." No Republican that I recall — and certainly nobody at the Heritage Foundation, where the idea originated — expressed any grave doubts about its constitutionality. Up here in Massachusetts, where we also have a state constitution, nobody lawyered up on Willard Romney when he got his mandate-based health-reform bill through the state legislature. There was no great clamoring about FREEEEEEEDOOOOMMMMMMMMM! In fact, in the 1990's, there was that rarest of all things — a national consensus that health-care reform was an interlocking network of national issues that required a national solution. That's why even zombie-eyed granny-starver Paul Ryan voted for George W. Bush's expansion of Medicare, even though there was no real mechanism in place to pay for it.
That consensus has broken down entirely. The Republican party has hitched itself to a position whereby the national government has no role to play in ameliorating the problems of the uninsured, or even of the underinsured. Listening to some of the leading lights of conservative opposition on Tuesday was what it must have been like to be in Ireland in 1921, during the debate in the Dail over the treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish War. One side argued realpolitik. The other side argued that the document betrayed a mystical bond between the Irish people and an Irish Republic that had been declared in 1916 but did not actually exist. One side argued facts. The other side argued faith. One side was arguing politics. The other, some sort of secular religion. They are irreconcilable concepts. Reconciling them is beyond politics.
This is what we have now. One side of the argument over an insurance-friendly health-care reform bill has moved their position into the realm of theological argument. It isn't just Senator Johnson talking darkly about "the last shred of freedom", either. (Johnson, it should be noted, is worth about $23 million. His personal health-care plan could afford hiring people to be sick for him, if he so chose.) His colleague, Jim DeMint, told a rally sponsored by Americans For Prosperity that the fight will go on no matter how the court rules.
"All of us hope that the Supreme Court will look at the Constitution, use common sense and throw this whole bill out," DeMint said at the rally. "But if they don't, it is our job to make sure that that bill is never implemented."
And why must the fight go on? The Girl With The Faraway Eyes had that question answered.
"This is the day we have been waiting for," Bachmann told a crowd. "We have not waved the white flag of surrender on socialized medicine...In the future, you see, we will not be electing a president.... If the health care law stands, we will be electing a health care dictator."
A "health-care dictator." Seriously? From a member of Congress? And a bonafide political leader?
If we were still all fighting this out in the realm of actual politics, and not on the Enchanted Islands of Children's Philosophy, the Republicans actually might be in a bit of a box politically, if the Supreme Court strikes down the law. (That law, you may recall, was largely a Republican solution in the first place.) They felt that way themselves, for a while. That's why you used to hear about "Repeal and Replace." That's been obsoleted — as the technocrats used to say — by the notion of "Repeal and LIBERTY (!)" The best they have is to make sure that the manufacturer of the next Dalkon Shield is protected from pesky law suits by the pesky relatives of the pesky dead people that his product killed, and to develop within the health-insurance company the same kind of regulatory regime that made the credit-card industry so very, very popular with its customers. Anything else, they simply will not abide, and it won't matter a damn if the ball in the roulette wheel in Anthony Kennedy's head drops into the slot marked, "Uphold."
Tort reform. Portability. And that's it. That's the plan, because those are solutions that the party's ginned-up base will swallow and that the party's corporate masters will allow, because those two mock solutions will make the party's corporate masters even more money. Hell, on Tuesday night with Jay Leno, Willard Romney, the man who once held the Republican solution to the national problem of national health-care in his hands, even bailed on people with pre-existing conditions. The old political saw has it that you can't beat somebody with nobody. But, we're finding, people who believe in something can always lose to people who believe in nothing.