Mitch McConnell, the taciturn Kentuckian who leads Senate Republicans, usually resembles Samuel Beckett's character Watt, who "had never smiled, but thought he knew how it was done." Last week, however, careful observers detected a trace of a hint of a shadow of a smile. Congressional Democrats were still at daggers drawn with one another, and the president's rhetoric was becoming CPR for the Republican Party.
On the 233rd day of his presidency, Barack Obama grabbed the country's lapels for the 263rd time—that was, as of last Wednesday, the count of his speeches, press conferences, town halls, interviews, and other public remarks. His speech to Congress was the 122nd time he had publicly discussed health care. Just 14 hours would pass before the 123rd, on Thursday morning. His incessant talking cannot combat what it has caused: An increasing number of Americans do not believe that he believes what he says.
He says America's health-care system is going to wrack and ruin and requires root-and-branch reform—but that if you like your health care (as a large majority of Americans do), nothing will change for you. His slippery new formulation is that nothing in his plan will "require" anyone to change coverage. He used to say, "If you like your health-care plan, you'll be able to keep your health-care plan, period." He had to stop saying that because various disinterested analysts agree that his plan will give many employers incentives to stop providing coverage for employees.
He deplores "scare tactics" but says that unless he gets his way, people will die. He praises temperate discourse but says many of his opponents are liars. He says Medicare is an exemplary program that validates government's prowess at running health systems. But he also says Medicare is unsustainable and going broke, and that he will pay for much of his reforms by eliminating the hundreds of billions of dollars of waste and fraud in this paragon of a program, and in Medicaid. He says Congress will cut Medicare (it will not) by $500 billion—without affecting benefits.
He says the nation's economic health depends on controlling health-care costs. Yet so important is the trial bar in financing the Democratic Party, he says not a syllable in significant and specific support of tort reforms that could save hundreds of billions of dollars by reducing "defensive medicine" intended to protect not patients from illnesses but doctors from lawyers. He has said he will not add a dime to the deficit when bringing 47 million people into government-guaranteed health care. But Wednesday night, 17 million went missing: "There are now more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage." Almost 10 million of the uninsured are not citizens, and most of them are illegal immigrants. Presumably the other 7 million could get insurance but chose not to. Democrats propose fines to eliminate that choice. He suggests health-insurance companies are making excessive profits. But since 1996, profits of the six such companies in the S&P 500 have been below the 500's average. He says a "public option"—a government insurance program—would not be subsidized to enable it to compete unfairly with private insurers. (The post office and the government's transportation -"public option," Amtrak, devour subsidies.) He says the public option is vital for keeping health insurers "honest"—but that it is only a wee "sliver" of reform. About that, Nancy Pelosi -disagrees.
She is liberalism's Dolores Ibárruri, a.k.a. La Pasionaria—the Passion Flower. An anti-Franco orator during the Spanish Civil War, Ibárruri gave the Loyalists their battle cry, "¡Nopasarán!"—"They shall not pass!" Franco's forces did pass, but Pelosi has vowed that a reform plan lacking a public option shall not pass the House. But Montana Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, says a public option cannot pass the Senate.
McConnell of the Mona Lisa smile says Congress will pass something because Obama will sign anything. McConnell notes, however, that never in his 25 Senate years have Republicans polled close to Democrats when the question is: Which party do you trust most to deal with health care? Until now. Last week's polling: Democratic Party, 41; Republican Party, 39—a statistical dead heat. On a generic ballot question—which party do you intend to vote for?—the GOP has gone from down 12 points to dead even since November. Independents defected in droves from the GOP in 2006 and 2008, but today only one third of them view Obama's handling of health care favorably.
He says "the time for bickering is over." Presidents of both parties disparage as mere bickering all inconvenient arguments about what government can and should do. Americans "didn't send us here to bicker," said George Herbert Walker Bush, in the first 15 minutes of America's most recent one-term presidency.