Sinking under the weight of raucous town hall meetings and cratering public support, health care reform was thrust into further uncertainty last week with the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy. The spiritual leader of the Democratic party's liberal wing was a forceful advocate for social justice initiatives, prompting reform advocates to invoke his name to lend an emotional ballast to health care policy reform efforts. Democrats are calculating that his death can be leveraged to create a veneer of bipartisanship.
The surprising turn of events underscores the weak position from which Democrats seek to advance a revamp of the nation's health care system. Congressional Democrats are losing the propaganda war as they confront a scenario once believed improbable: the possible demise of comprehensive health care reform. It's quite the state of affairs for President Barack Obama's signature domestic initiative and a topic long considered a cornerstone of Democratic policy thinking.
During what many political pundits have called the "make-or-break month" of August, public opinion has turned sharply against health care reform. An energized grassroots movement opposed to expensive, rationed government-run health care has put politicians on the defensive.
By trotting out Kennedy's memory, Democrats indulge what has become of their most manipulative yet effective tradition: using emotion and symbolism to supplant (or subvert, as some might argue) empirically supported arguments. Alas, the "Win one for Teddy" strategy is entirely consistent with the propensity of liberals to win politically charged debates. Opponents of universal health care have been branded as unpatriotic, or demonized as racists implacably opposed to the agenda of the first African-American president. Such accusations are patently false, and they obscure the fact that it's not just Republicans or conservatives raising concerns about the plan.
The steady decline in public opinion reflects an inconvenient reality militating against the emotional arguments crafted by Democrats: universal health care is simply unaffordable at this juncture. The Congressional Budget Office has undermined the effort with numbers showing proposed health care legislation would only cover a fraction of the estimated 47 million uninsured, and at a staggering cost of at least $1 trillion.
Since the NFL regular season is almost here, it's appropriate to employ a few football metaphors. The White House Budget Office serves as the fiscal quarterback for the president's priorities. But the office threw an interception worthy of Brett Favre when it released estimates showing a cumulative deficit of $7 - $9 trillion over the next decade in the thick of the health care debate. President Obama also muffed a punt when he proposed budget cuts that are the fiscal equivalent of ordering a diet coke with a bacon double-cheeseburger and chili-cheese fries. Elsewhere, Washington's political class has yet to call signals for contending with the impending financial tsunami of Social Security and Medicare - both of which are set to become insolvent when the Baby Boom generation retires.
We can expect Kennedy's saintly treatment in the media to serve as a backdrop for debate when Congress returns in the fall. While nobody should eulogize comprehensive health care reform just yet, attempts to use his legacy as a force multiplier for health care reform are likely to prove fruitless. No amount of moralizing, or appropriating the memory of a fallen liberal icon, can obscure the stubborn fact that a government-run plan is too expensive to countenance.
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