Like the rest of the nation, I woke up on the morning of March 22 in a different America than the one I have known and loved. The first thing I did was to rouse my daughter for school. The second thing I did was to let out the dog. The third was to contribute $100 to the National Republican Congressional Committee online. The fourth, at sunrise, was to put out my American flag, which has flown by my door almost every day since September 12, 2001. This time, I put it out upside down. The U.S. Code states The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. The passage of Obamacare qualifies, on both counts.
The Democratic Congress is certainly to be congratulated for its historic achievement. It may have just passed the most singularly perverse legislation in the last century. The measure it has just enacted will make taxes go up, quality of health care go down, insurance premiums go up, the national debt go up, dependence on government go up, abortions go up, and individual freedom go down. As Ronald Reagan said in a different context, everything that should be up is going down and everything that should be down is going up. Our lives, liberty, and property are now ever more firmly under the control of progressive ideologues and bureaucratic ninnies. All of this will, in theory, buy us an increase in the proportion of Americans who have health insurance from 88 percent to (in the Senate bill) 94 percent. In reality, even this modest improvement is far from guaranteed, as many Americans will do the math and realize that it is cheaper to drop their insurance, pay the nominal fine, and sign up again when they get sick, now that insurance companies are required to accept preexisting conditions.
The leftist infatuation with Ben Franklin is abruptly over. Franklin’s warning that “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security”—quoted incessantly during the war on terror, back when there was one—has been conveniently forgotten. Apparently, the security of the nation against foreign attack is not sufficient reason to forego the “essential liberty” of affording habeas corpus to paramilitary forces engaged in war against the United States, but to degrade the liberty of the whole people, which is assaulted in a myriad of ways by Obamacare, is acceptable (even commendable) when the prize is the security of government-subsidized band-aids for people with incomes four times the poverty level.
The vote on March 21, and the ugly process that culminated in the vote, has clarified some important things. The fight to repeal the monster, which began March 22, will also clarify some big things. The Democratic Party, having sacrificed every consideration of prudent policy, sound principle, proper procedure, and ethical integrity in its unseemly rush to ram this bill down the throat of an unwilling nation, has shown itself unfit to govern a free people. Repeal, full or partial, may succeed. If repeal fails because Americans ultimately accept the Democrats’ invitation to relax and enjoy the security of the bonds that have now been fastened upon them, it will provide a troubling indication that Americans will put up with virtually any depredation the political class imposes on them. Enough of us to decide the matter will, on second thought, have decided that national bankruptcy, addiction to government largesse, and contempt of the governed by their supposed servants are not so bad after all, though (like all addicts) we will doubtless maintain a love-hate relationship with our supplier. In that case, it might not matter that Democrats are unfit to govern a free people. If repeal fails despite the preference of Americans, because (as on March 21) the apostles of the welfare state have insulated themselves and their machine from accountability, Americans will have shown themselves to be a free people in search of a free government. That may be the most combustible outcome of all.
No matter what happens, the issue is not going to go away. Democrats and their allies in the media seem unaware that millions of Americans are not going to let their country join Greece in the European welfare state death spiral without a long, hard fight. They do not understand that millions of Americans continue to define their country’s identity by the Declaration of Independence rather than Franklin Roosevelt’s “economic bill of rights,” and that they are not inclined to let the Declaration slip quietly into the good night of Tocqueville’s soft despotism. Relieved that the vote was over, Democratic congressman Dan Maffei declared “Now we can move on.” Now that we have passed an enormously destructive bill, the full costs and harms of which will only become known over months or years, against both the best principles of our country and the will of our constituents, many of whom are angrier at our arrogance than they have ever been in their lives, we can move on. I don’t think so. Maybe in January Congressman Maffei will be moving on. In fact, I may contribute to his opponent next.
For the time being, we are on the road to a system that would suit well the Swedes and the Germans—though, perhaps, not the Swedes and the Germans who crossed an ocean to help build a different sort of land where men and women were free and responsible. The next few years will be a natural experiment, testing Bill Clinton’s theory that Democrats would help their position by passing a bill supported by one-third of Americans, and a vast exercise in civic education, inviting Americans to remember who they are and what their nation has meant to the world. In the debate on health care, the president peddled enough whoppers that he could have charged Burger King for advertising time, but he told one truth: this is about the American character. When the same Ben Franklin who preferred liberty to security emerged from the constitutional convention, a woman asked him what the delegates had wrought. “A republic,” was his response, “if you can keep it.”
Andrew E. Busch is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Ann and Herbert Vaughan Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.