Will Obamacare Destroy the Democrats?

So here we are. The hour is upon us. The end is nigh. After more than a year of haggling, it looks the House will vote Sunday on a revised version of the Senate health-care-reform bill, and Pelosi and Co. will probably—not definitely, but probably—have the 216 votes they need to pass it. 

For members of the MSM, Sunday will be a glorious day. Forced for months to focus on the ins and outs of policy and procedure—excise taxes and insurance exchanges, reconciliation and "deem and pass"—the chatterati will finally be free to obsess over the thing they obsess over best: politics. Before you know it, every talk show, podcast, blog, and op-ed page will be asking the same question, ad nauseam: Did the Democrats just make a big mistake? Will Obamacare doom the party in 2010, 2012—and beyond? 

Champing at their bits, some Beltway bloviators have, in fact, already begun to place their bets. The most eager—and therefore the most entertaining—may be conservative commentator Fred Barnes. Writing in today's Wall Street Journal, theWeekly Standard editor and FOX News contributor boldly declares that "The Health Care Wars Are Only Beginning." "Passage wouldn't end the health-care debate," Barnes predicts. "Rather, it would perpetuate Obamacare as the dominant issue for decades to come, reshape politics, create an annual funding crisis in Congress, and generate a spate of angry lawsuits." The effect, he says, will be like "a political explosion," "preoccupy[ing] the president, Congress and millions of average Americans for the foreseeable future—and then some."

Barnes's passion makes for good copy; in the first paragraph, for example, he implies that ObamaCare is like Pearl Harbor ("Little did they know their lives would be changed forever and America would be at war, or on war footing, for the next half-century"), and the piece only gets more colorful from there. But is his prognostication true? Will Obamacare decimate the Democratic Party in November and consume Washington for millennia to come? 

I'm going to guess that it won't. And here are three reasons why:

1) Time heals all wounds. Like it or not, voters tend to forget yesterday's headlines—particularly in a frantic, accelerated, 1,440-minute news cyclelike ours. Yes, the bill is imperfect. Yes, the process that produced it was even more so. No one liked the Cornhusker Kickback, or the Louisiana Purchase, or the rank partisanship that prevented Democrats and Republicans from negotiating in good faith. So it's understandable that the public is weary of the entire debate at this point. But in politics, today's top concern is never the top concern for long; time keeps on ticking, as a wise man once said, into the future. In 2008, Iraq dominated the early Democratic primaries, so everyone assumed that it would define the general election. John McCain, for instance, based his entire strategy on Obama's inability to "win" the war. But the surge (among other things) helped stabilize the conflict, and by the time November rolled around, Iraq was hardly even an issue. For five years, a steady stream of bad news had kept the war at the center of the national conversation. When the bad news dwindled, the debate died down.

Something similar will probably happen with Obamacare. Right now, all the headlines are about sweetheart deals and obscure parliamentary procedures. Process, in other words—icky, despicable Washington process. But if the bill passes, the process will be over. There will be no more process to report on or read about. And at time when so many Americans are out of work and struggling to pay their bills—a time when so many other big issues loom on the horizon (jobs, immigration, deficit reduction)—it's hard to imagine that anyone except the bitterest partisans will be able to maintain their current level of disgust over Ben Nelson's shenanigans for the nine gristless months between now and Election Day, let alone "the foreseeable future," as Barnes suggests. Especially when you consider that they'll start to wonder ...

2) What's in it for me?Our media culture is perpetually stuck in the present tense, and until now, that's meant a lot of stories about "how health reform is wending its way through Washington." But if the bill passes, process will become part of the past, and politicians and the press will begin to focus on how the new law will actually affect the American people. For Democrats, this is far friendlier turf than "deem and pass"—to put it mildly. 

In his op-ed, Barnes notes that Pelosi "believes ObamaCare ... will become as popular as Social Security and Medicare with voters,"  then chuckles derisively. "She's kidding herself," he scoffs. "Social Security and Medicare were popular from the start and passed with bipartisan support. ObamaCare is unpopular and partisan"—more like Britain's National Health Service than Social Security and Medicare. This is a curious argument. It's true that Obamacare is somewhat unpopular at this point. But so were Social Security and Medicare in their time. In fact, Barnes's political forebears—conservatives like Ronald Reagan and the anti–New Deal Republicans in Congress—called Medicare "socialized medicine" and argued that Social Security would subject the public to "the last of the dictator" and "end the progress of a great country." And the thing was, the critics were sort of right: Medicare and Social Security were(and are) socialist measures. If anything was fated to end up like the NHS, it was these programs. By comparison, Obamacare is a rather tame affair; instead of creating a new government-run behemoth, the bill will funnel tens of millions of new customers into the private-insurance system. Once people found out what Social Security and Medicare would do for them—i.e., provide a steady source of income and rock-solid health insurance after retirement—the measures became, in Barnes's words, "popular" and "bipartisan." To claim that the same thing won't happen with ObamaCare—that somehow, Americans can stomach outright socialism but not a private-insurance reform bill—strikes me as rather shortsighted.

Starting Sunday, Dems can stop defending unseemly parliamentary procedures and start touting the immediate effects of Obamacare instead. In the first year alone, lifetime (and annual) caps on coverage will be outlawed. Insurance companies won't be allowed to discriminate against people with "preexisting conditions" or drop patients for getting sick. All children will be covered until the age of 26. Small businesses that offer coverage will receive tax credits worth up to 50 percent of premiums. All new insurance plans will offer free preventive care. And seniors will receive $250 rebates to help cover the Medicare Part D "donut hole." Each one of these changes will take effect before the November elections, and each will be appealing to important groups of voters—seniors, young people, small-business owners—who've spent the much of the past year thinking the bill had nothing in it for them. As the instant benefits of ObamaCare come to dominate the national conversation, it's only natural to expect public antipathy to dissipate, especially among nonpartisan independents who objected to the high jinks required to pass the bill but were always in favor of its component parts. The only voting bloc that will lose out in the short term is individuals making more than $200,000; they'll be forced to pay slightly higher Medicare taxes on income and investments. But rich people don't vote for Democrats anyway. Right now, 46 percent of Americans back Obamacare and 42 percent oppose it. Those numbers will likely get better once the process debate ends and the reforms actually kick in.

I'm not saying Obamacare is perfect, or even anything close. But I doubt Democrats will be worse off in November (and beyond) for passing it. Elections—especially midterm elections—are all about enthusiasm. The GOP will be fired up no matter what happens Sunday; they're set to pick up seats regardless. But the Democrats need something to sell. With a bill under their belts, they'll almost certainly rack up more liberal and independent votes than they would've without one.

3) The costs are unclear. In his piece, Barnes claims that the costs of Obamacare are so great that they will inspire "a movement to repeal it." "If you think the fights over funding of Medicare and Medicaid in recent years have been unpleasant, wait until the funding battles over Obamacare start," he writes. "It's all but inevitable that they would occur every year given the way Mr. Obama has proposed to finance his health-care program." According to Barnes, the GOP will launch lawsuits to block the bill, and if a Republican is elected president in 2012, he or she "might be successful in dismantling the program."

But I'm not sure how well this will play politically. Again, the process arguments will have ended; many people will be enjoying their new benefits. It's unclear to me how, in this environment, as unemployment still hovers at uncomfortably high levels and the public demands action on jobs, the Republican Party will build a governing coalition around the notion of repealing a bill that passed months or even years earlier. It's that not I don't understand their points about spending and deficits. Budget hawkery is important. But their argument—that bad stuff will happen to our economy because of Obamacare—is based solely on contradicting the best available projections we have of how the program will affect America's fiscal health. According to the Congressional Budget Office—Washington's official nonpartisan scorekeeper—the final version of Obamacare will cost $940 billion and reduce the deficit by $130 billion over the first 10 years (plus an additional $1.2 trillion over the following decade). And while CBO estimates are by nature uncertain, they actually tend toward the conservative end of the spectrum—meaning that this $1.2 trillion, 20-year deficit-reduction estimate, which, as Ezra Klein points out, represents "a more promising prediction than was offered for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit or the Bush tax cuts or really any piece of legislation passed in the last 10 years," is actually a worst-case projection

But my point here is not to claim that the CBO is right. Instead, I'm saying that at a time when most people want their elected officials to focus on jobs, Republicans will find it very difficult to build a block-or-repeal "movement"—a movement, it's worth noting, that would require 60 votes in the Senate and entail revoking people's coverage—by telling everyone to just ignore what the only independent estimator in town says about how much Obamacare will cost and listen to partisans like Fred Barnes instead.

Which reminds me. There's a fourth reason not to believe Barnes's predictions: he's rarely right about this stuff. In 2006, Barnes claimed that "a national consensus ha[d] formed around what... [P]resident [Bush] calls 'comprehensive' immigration reform." On Nov. 2, 2008, he predicted that John McCain would defeat Obama in the electoral college, 286 to 252—even as fellow Republicans like Alex Castellanos, Matthew Dowd, and Ed Rollins were projecting an Obama landslide. And on Jan. 20, he penned these immortal words: "The health-care bill, Obamacare, is dead with not the slightest prospect of resurrection."

When Barnes puts his chips on red, in other words, it's probably safe to put yours on black—or, in this case, blue. My bet is that the Democrats will be fine.