In my column this week, I argue that the political failure of the Iraq War made Obamacare possible by sweeping Democrats into power with a filibuster-proof majority and a liberal president committed to passing a national health care law.
Over at the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore takes issue with my argument from the left. To start, he disputes my notion that in 2004 Democrats still had the memory of the failure of 1994 Clinton health care push in their minds and that liberal activists become more emboldened about the prospects of passing universal health care after Democrats took over Congress in 2006. I don’t really see this as some sort of right-wing perspective. In October 2004, the New York Times editorialized of the Bush and Kerry health care proposals: “Both tinker at the edges of the current system rather than seeking a broad, nation-shaking change. Sadly, the fervor for sweeping reform died a decade ago with the disastrous demise of the Clinton health plan.” Liberal activist groups and figures such as Andy Stern of the SEIU made sure the leading 2008 Democratic presidential candidates introduced ambitious health care plans, which included public options. Though they did not attain a public option, I’ve argued that the existence of it shifted the debate, distracted the opposition and gave more moderate Democrats something to oppose so that they could vote for final legislation that didn’t include it. In 2009, during the heat of the health care debate, even Ezra Klein observed that the policy goal post had moved substantially in favor of the liberal position since Howard Dean released his 2004 presidential campaign’s health care proposal.
Kilgore notes that Democrats had been pushing universal health care since the days of Harry Truman and argues that Republican obstruction is what made the 60-vote threshold in the Senate necessary. But neither of these arguments undercuts my point. The reality is that the nation’s bicameral system (I’d argue by design) makes sweeping changes difficult to enact. The largest expansions of the federal government — the creation of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — came during periods following massive Democratic election victories. If Democrats only had 55 or even 58 Senate seats in 2009, they would not have overcome Republican opposition to pass a bill as ambitious as the health care law. Whether one thinks it’s fair or not, the reality is that they needed 60 votes. And I don’t see how they would have gotten to 60 without the backlash from the Iraq War.
At the Washington Post, Jonathan Bernstein uses the debate as a jumping off point to make a broader observation about the nature of democracy.