President Obama’s major address on health care delivered on September 9, 2009 may have been about reform of our health care system, but more than that it symbolized the choice Americans face as a people. Either we can continue on the same path we’ve been on, which has been one of gridlock and acceptance of the status quo, or we can move in a new direction.
To the Republicans, the choice is said to be between “big government” and “halting government growth.” If they had not spent trillions on tax cuts not matched by spending cuts, or wars that cost both money and international standing, they might have some credibility. If they hadn’t presided over the bubble economy’s most dramatic expansion only to be shocked when it burst, I could take them more seriously. Instead, it appears that the GOP has been more about anger, partisanship and fear than real problem solving. When a Congressman calls the President a liar, heckling him in the Capitol, it represents a party so caught up in fear and emotion that it’s hard to take them seriously. It’s also telling that the issue involved coverage for illegal immigrants, a xenophobic hot button for many on the right.
Alas, the Democrats have not played fair all the time either. They have often lacked the courage to stand up to special interest groups in order to get realistic change, and have got caught up in political games and power struggles as well. Both parties have fiddled while US strength and prestige slowly burns away, and now both glare at each other without trust as the country faces crises of a magnitude many are only starting to sense.
Bouyed by angry ‘townhall’ protests in August, many Republicans believe Obama is on the ropes, his Presidency in danger, and thus have decided it’s best to stay on the attack. This is rationalized by ideological jihad, any governmental effort to solve a problem is bad, and thus it is legitimate to bring up scary things like alleged ‘death panels’ and other disinformation to use fear to generate opposition.
Yet the country faces real challenges. First is a health care system that is utterly unsustainable. If the Republicans win and nothing gets done, it will be a pyhrric victory, as the system will continue to collapse until so many lose coverage and get denied claims that people will scream for an even stronger government plan. Second are deficits and debt levels that create a danger of inflation and structural long term weaknesses for the US economy. This debt is bi-partisan and full of pork. It can be cut, but both sides have to compromise. There is much the US can no longer afford, including a massive military engaged in distant wars, and entitlement programs that often support those who do not need support.
Most importantly, though, is a spiritual crisis, or the crisis of character that President Obama spoke of. America has gone from being a country of noble ideas and faith in the future, to one focused on consumption and fear. But this can quickly change. When the economic crisis hit Americans found themselves able to start saving, and put off buying new stuff. We haven’t yet been corrupted by consumerism, we simply gave into its temptation thanks to cheap credit and efforts to convince us that consumption gives life meaning. The choice before us is a moral choice, and as the President noted, one that speaks to our national character.
Can we solve these problems working together pragmatically, or are we going to divide into ideological camps unwilling to compromise?
On the left, liberals and progressive push Obama to go for a large public option, and threaten to derail the bill if they don’t get it. They want to fight both moderate Democrats and Republicans whose skepticism of these ideas they disdain. On the right, conservatives want to simply derail the plan, and continue with the status quo. Obama is to be defeated; cooperation only gives him a victory which in the zero sum world of hardball politics might strengthen him. For them, partisan battles trump the public good.
In the middle stand people like Barack Obama, and Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. Snowe has not signaled support for a plan yet, but she has also not screamed out paranoid fears or slammed the door. She seems genuinely commited to the idea of reform, driven by the kinds of moral concerns that Obama talked about as he reflected on the letter he received from Ted Kennedy. In short, people like Obama and Snowe can recognize they have different core beliefs on many issues, but a shared belief in solving the problems facing the country, and taking seriously the suffering many Americans have due to no fault of their own. They recognize that “private charity” simply won’t fill the gap, and bankruptcy and health woes hit hard working Americans who may feel they were not at risk.
It is time to choose to make changes and truly reform and alter the path of the country. Thoughtful Republicans should focus less on partisan ideology and more on practical concerns: taking the debt and deficit seriously, working against bureaucratic waste, trying to assure individual liberty is not sacrificed, and keeping government accountable. The positive traits that draw many to conservatism can be maintained and promoted even while reform is undertaken. Constructively, the President opened that door for them, they can make a difference.
Democrats should realize that the also have to compromise. Obama reportedly is making the compromise on malpractice reform in response to a demand by Snowe that this issue be taken seriously. That makes her potentially far more effective in promoting conservative goals than those who screech about death panels and who play the fear card. Moreover, Democratic refusal to compromise has hindered reforms before. In the 70s Nixon supported a plan that, had it received Democratic support, would have given us a national health care system long ago. In the early Clinton years more compromise might have allowed at least a first step at reform.
Health care reform is only the first issue, we face others just as serious. But it is an issue that will say a lot about the future. If partisan bickering and ideological war cause this to disintegrate into simply a continuation of the status quo, it proves that our leaders — and by extension us as citizens — lack the character to truly address the problems at hand. If we can solve this by both sides coming together, if Olympia Snowe ends up representing the Republican party more accurately than Rush Limbaugh, and if Obama can steer his party to real pragmatic compromise, then we will have come together at a difficult moment to move the country in the right direction.
It is time to choose. Our future depends upon it.