Daniel Henninger: From Bismarck to Obama





[Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.]

Delivering ObamaCare unto the world wasn't supposed to be this hard. Just how hard is obvious when the president of the United States does five Sunday talk shows of sequential shilling. The New York Times memorialized this low point for the office of the presidency by arranging on its front page five identical photographs of Mr. Obama with each anchorman sitting across from him like a can of Campbell's soup. Regard this as my order for the poster version of the Five Obamas.

Writing in these pages earlier in the month, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle suggested, as have other Democrats, that the country has been waiting for "national health reform" for 70 years. Seventy years!!!??? That's 1939. The only major obsession longer than this was the Red Sox curse. Even Helen Thomas wasn't on the story yet. This is a heap of political futility.

What's the problem? Speaking from Dr. Letterman's couch this week, Mr. Obama again blamed the difficulty on "misinformation." I have been reading the past work of two liberal health-care specialists, Theodore Marmor and Victor Fuchs, whose thoughts suggest the problem predates town halls and aggressive talk-show hosts.

Mr. Marmor teaches welfare-state politics at Yale. In a long article written with Gary McKissick when Barack Obama was still in the Illinois Senate, he noted that the idea of national health insurance has been discussed in Washington since before World War I. When Democrats say they've been "waiting 70 years," they are referring to the fact that national health insurance was part of the original Social Security proposal in the 1930s. "From 1936 to the late 1940s, liberals recurrently called for incorporating universal health insurance within America's emerging welfare state." It always failed in Congress.

In 1952, liberals "formulated a plan for an incremental expansion of government health insurance." This evolved into Medicare for retirees in 1965. It was supposed to be only the first step. "The strategy's proponents," Mr. Marmor says, "presumed that eligibility would gradually expand. They believed that it would take in most, if not all, of the population." That didn't happen. The Clintons tried again and failed, and now after 70 years we have the latest version, ObamaCare, which has problems of its own.

Mr. Marmor's key insight for our current drama is to note that Medicare for retirees came to life "with no clear philosophical rationale." In other words, if you are going to pass a Big Idea such as universal health insurance, you need to give the public a Big Reason. The reason given for ObamaCare has already shifted several times.

This odyssey, notes Mr. Marmor, has left the country "well short of consensus" on national health insurance. That lack of consensus, born of 70 years of politicking, is more the source of Mr. Obama's problems than "misinformation." ...


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