Because I was on the road the last few days, I haven’t yet commented about ObamaCare’s passage through the House. That’s just as well. Like most people who frequent the political blogosphere, I approach politics as a spectator sport in which I take a rooting interest. But I don’t pretend to special insight when it comes to assessing the contestants’ performance. So I don’t have anything to add to the obvious observation that Obama and Nancy Pelosi showed some game over the last couple of weeks. Say want to you want about the results, but you can’t deny that, between them, they've made more than a little history.
What impressed me most about the weekend, however, was the ideological seriousness underlying the gamesmanship. I’m no political handicapper, but I don’t buy the idea that, in a political climate that allows Scott Brown to win a Massachusetts Senate race, the Democrats will incur no incremental political cost by pushing ObamaCare through despite its unpopularity. What’s more, I doubt that many Democratic or Republican House members buy it either. The idea that there’s no political difference between, on the one hand, trying and failing to enact a resoundingly unpopular policy and, actually enacting it on the other, is too implausible on its face.
Yet the Democrats supported, and the Republicans opposed, ObamaCare’s passage anyway; the Democrats because they decided that enabling 30 million more Americans to get health insurance was worth losing control of the House, and the Republicans, because they’re willing to sacrifice some seats in the next election to stop the federal government from taking jurisdiction over healthcare and insurance choices that it is unlikely to relinquish in the future. I don’t think that there’s any other way to explain the passion of Nancy Pelosi's and John Boehner's pre-vote speeches on the floor of the House. It's not often that you can listen to either of them without cringing for one reason or another.
Now the ideological argument over ObamaCare can proceed without the cynical spin and/or wishful thinking that characterizes legislative advocacy. When you’re rounding up votes, it pays to talk as if all good things in this world go together. So conservative Republicans pretended that all distributive problems about access to healthcare will take care of themselves once you correct the tax bias in favor of employer-provided health insurance and allow interstate competition in the insurance market. Now they'll have to show us how committed they really are to widening access to affordable healthcare. And liberal Democrats pretended that their facility in exploiting CBO accounting conventions relieved them of the burden of calibrating and defending tradeoffs among partly inconsistent objectives like covering people who are currently uninsured, bending the healthcare cost curve, making Medicare and Medicaid solvent, etc. Now they'll have to defend the choices they've actually made and will have to make when the expected costs and benefits of ObamaCare are better defined.
This is just getting interesting.