With the Democrats looking about to lose Ted Kennedy’s senate seat, a single line near the end of a front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times should send chills through the White House’s top echelons.
The story’s headline announces “Election Tests Staying Power of Democrats.” Most of the focus is on why the Massachusetts race is slipping away. Allowing for the Times’ bias, the reporter gets it right. Spending, taxes, deficits, government intrusion into the economy including the health overhaul: dismay at these policies among Independents nationally and in the Bay State is the cause of Mr. Obama’s dive in the polls and why the Democrats may drop Kennedy’s seat on Tuesday. Surely by now these observations cannot come as news to anyone, but, then, the Times is playing catch up to The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, which have been on the case for months.
But the line that should unsettle the White House hints at emerging divisions in the most inside of inside Washington political teams. It reads, “Still, some Democrats are wondering if Mr. Obama would be in a better position now if he had embraced a less ambitious health care proposal, as some aides urged….”
To date the staff of the Obama White House has been admirably loyal to their man. Leaks have supported, not undermined, the president and his agenda. Yes, everyone inside surely felt a rising desperation as Mr. Obama’s poll numbers fell. It cannot have been easy these last couple of weeks to read that, for this stage of a presidency, he was the least popular president on record. But they have not broken ranks in backing their man and his message. All have done their duty as presidential aides — until the Times’ story.
Now someone, maybe several someones, has cracked. You can almost hear the interviews: “Oh, I urged him right from the first”, or “We wouldn’t be in this mess if he had only listened to me”, or “I TOLD senior staff we had to focus on the economy”, or “Those guys at the top don’t listen to anyone… they talk about openness, but the Republicans have at least that one right, they’re as closed as any administration in history.”
It comes down to a switch from “we” to “me”, as in, “Don’t blame me”, or “It’s his mistake, not mine”, or “You’re on your own now, buddy. I’m protecting my spot in the sun, not yours.”
This is not to deny that another approach to price inflation in the health care sector would have been better. Embracing 1930s-style social democracy in the first decade of the 21st century was surpassingly foolish. It was as if the president and his aides had learned nothing from the global experience with social democracy over the last eight decades. The analyses that showed their plan leading to rationing, increased price inflation, declining quality and innovation, and a further crushing burden on the federal budget merely echoed the findings from social democratic experiments in sector after sector – including health care – around the world.
And it was not as if we lacked for alternatives that would have freed markets to drive costs down and quality up, as happens routinely elsewhere in our economy, and required minimal political capital to pass.
These alternatives include:
· Equalizing the tax treatment of individuals and companies, so individuals are not penalized for buying insurance on their own and can decide the policies best for themselves;
· Allowing expanded health savings accounts, to increase individual choice in health care options, including accounting for costs;
· Introducing real competition by saying that a health plan licensed for sale in one state may be sold in all;
· Repeal of laws that discourage doctors from becoming health care entrepreneurs, freeing them to seek more efficient ways to provide more effective care;
· Reforming the medical liability system, driving the cost of predatory lawsuits from the system;
· Ending state certificate-of-need rules for hospital construction and other rules that restrict competition within the health care sector.
Over the last several decades, economists at places such as Hoover, Pacific Research Institute, and the Manhattan Institute developed these market-freeing proposals. But it is doubtful that anyone in the Obama White House actually knows of or understands them.
Be that as it may, every president deserves better than aides whispering around Washington, “Not my fault.” No matter how tomorrow’s voting turns out, the kitchen is only starting to get warm. As a former presidential aide myself, I wonder, what will they do when it really heats up?