President Obama’s speech at Faneuil Hall was probably his most passionate and unapologetic defense of the health-care law in ages, maybe since its passage. At times like this in the past, Old Mr. Reasonable has hemmed and hawed, ceding that his opponents had a point, but insisting—reasonably, of course—that he had a better one if you just stopped and thought about it. But Wednesday afternoon in Boston gave us a different Obama. He took a page out of the Bush playbook or, dare I say it, even the Cheney one. If things are going a little rocky at the moment, it doesn’t matter; cede nothing. Stick to plan. No matter the merits or facts, it’s the only approach that our political culture respects.
The money moment of the speech, of course, came when he answered the questions raised by the NBC report Tuesday. According to NBC, people who had bought insurance on the private market who don’t have either employer or government coverage were getting hammered by Obamacare. They were getting letters telling them their coverage had expired and then finding that the new coverage available to them was going to cost more. It flew in the face, said NBC’s Lisa Myers, of Obama’s promise that if you had coverage now and liked it, nothing would happen to you.
She was right. He shouldn’t have said it. And in Boston he didn’t exactly say, “I shouldn’t have said it.” But he did turn it around and say for that small percentage of people, the coverage they’re going to end up with is better! It also just might be cheaper, he said, and they are going to have peace of mind: “They can’t use allergies or pregnancy or sports injury or the fact that you’re a woman to charge you more. They can’t do that anymore!”
It’s an interesting, by which I mean preposterous, meme that’s developing on the Republican side. On Wednesday morning, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the issue. Some people, Blackburn said, “would rather drive a Ford than a Ferrari.” No denying that; in my younger and single and childless days, I certainly would have opted for a Ford plan instead of a Ferrari plan, so up to a point, Blackburn is making sense.
But Obamacare creates a world where insurers have to cover several categories of treatments that they never had to cover before, and since people with those conditions are now going to sign up and use those services, it’s going to cost more in some cases. And it’s understandable if people are upset about that. But Blackburn’s analogy, of course, breaks down because any citizen, at some unknowable future point, may be hit with one of those conditions. A person might develop mental illness. Or their child might. No imaginable circumstance could make a reasonable Ford-owner think, “Damn, I should have bought that Ferrari.” But numerous circumstances could make the self-employed citizen or parent think, “Damn, I’m glad I bought that Ferrari plan.”
What’s most fascinating to me about the whole thing is that the experience is training, or is going to train, Americans to rethink the really fundamental questions about how life and society are organized in a way politics rarely does. One of the major differences between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives believe in the primacy of the individual, while liberals want people to think about the community. Another difference, related, has to do with the two creeds’ opposing conceptions of individualism. Conservatives go for the whole rugged individualism thing, whereas the liberal view of the individual is closer to “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Well, the nature of health-care coverage is it has the power to bring consideration of these questions to the fore. A country where people have to sit down and choose how best to protect themselves and their loved ones against pain and death, and where they have to think about the trade-offs between paying more and having better coverage, is a country where people are being forced, in a way, to think about the most profound questions of community and the individual—of how much responsibility we ought to be forced to shoulder for each other.
I used to think, “This is just like auto insurance; you’re a safe driver, but you insure yourself against the unsafe drivers, and everybody understands that, so why should this be different?” But it is, somehow. It’s so much more personal. It’s about our frailty as human beings, and contemplation of our frailty makes us both obstinate and individualistic (“I can take of myself, Jack!”) and, in our more honest moments, vulnerable and communitarian (“What will I do if I really get sick?”). Forcing people to think about their coverage forces them to think about all that.
How will it turn out? Who knows. It has the positive potential of making people, a majority of people, see that this all makes a kind of sense, that they are not, whether they like it or not, autonomous actors. That, come to think of it, is what terrifies conservatives. Since 1980, they have trained people to think chiefly about themselves, unburdened of the context of society. Obamacare will force them to think of society. And most people, not being selfish asses (and most people aren’t), will, once the kinks are worked out, accept it. Polls are already indicating that. No wonder Ted Cruz is losing it.