Peggy Noonan contends that the Progressive Frontier of government expansion closed some time ago. Americans already have all the government, all the services, taxes, and regulations they can stand. Barack Obama and the democrats in Congress are yearning to go back to a Depression era past in which paternalistic leaders in Washington taxed and spent, and delivered de haute en bas charitable goodies to grateful voters. Americans today know that they will have to pay for any gifts sent to them from Washington themselves.
I’m not sure the White House can tell the difference between campaign mode and governing mode, but it is the difference between “us versus them” and “us.” People sense the president does too much of the former, and this is reflected not only in words but decisions, such as the pursuit of a health-care agenda that was inevitably divisive. It has lost the public’s enthusiastic backing, if it ever had it, but is gaining on Capitol Hill. People don’t want whatever it is they’re about to get, and they’re about to get it. In that atmosphere everything grates, but most especially us-versus-them-ism.
The biggest thing supporters of a health care overhaul do not understand about those who oppose their efforts, and who oppose the Baucus bill, which has triumphantly passed the Senate Finance Committee even though no one knows exactly what is or will end up in it, is the issue of context.
The Democratic Party and the White House repeatedly suggest that if you are not for the bill or an overhaul, you don’t care about your fellow human beings and you love and support the insurance companies. Actually, no one loves the insurance companies, including the insurance companies. … But the Obama administration’s strategy of making (the insurance industry) “the villain” in “the narrative” will probably not have that much punch because . . . well, again, who likes the insurance companies? Who ever did?
People who oppose a health-care overhaul are not in love with insurance companies. They’re not even in love with the status quo. Everyone knows the jerry-built system of the past half-century has weak points. They just don’t think the current plan will shore them up. They think the plan would create new weak points and widen old ones. They think this because they have brains.
But even that doesn’t get to the real subtext of the opposition. Yes, the timing is wrongâ€”we have other, more urgent crises to face, and an exploding deficit. And yes, a big change in a huge economic sector during economic crisis is looking for trouble.
But a big part of opposition to the health-care plan is a sense of historical context. People actually have a sense of the history they’re living in and the history their country has recently lived through. They understand the moment we’re in.
In the days of the New Deal, in the 1930s, government growth was virgin territory. It was like pushing west through a continent that seemed new and empty. There was plenty of room to move. The federal government was still small and relatively lean, the income tax was still new. America pushed on, creating what it created: federal programs, departments and initiatives, Social Security. In the mid-1960s, with the Great Society, more or less the same thing. Government hadn’t claimed new territory in a generation, and it pushed onâ€”creating Medicare, Medicaid, new domestic programs of all kinds, the expansion of welfare and the safety net.
Now the national terrain is thick with federal programs, and with state, county, city and town entities and programs, from coast to coast. It’s not virgin territory anymore, it’s crowded. We are a nation fully settled by government. We are well into the age of the welfare state, the age of government. We know its weight, heft and demands, know its costs both in terms of money and autonomy, even as we know it has made many of our lives more secure, and helped many to feel encouragement.
But we know the price now. This is the historical context. The White House often seems disappointed that the big center, the voters in the middle of the spectrum, aren’t all that excited about following them on their bold new journey. But it’s a world America has been to. It isn’t new to us. And we don’t have too many illusions about it.