The prevailing concern among liberals is that health care reform in 2008 will follow in the footsteps of the 1993 debacle. This is a legitimate concern, and health care reformists would be wise to draw lessons from the Clintons' failure, but we don't need to reach back the 1990s for allusions to failed entitlement reform. Beleaguered Republicans could always sink health reform the way beleaguered 2005 Democrats torpedoed Social Security privatization: Paint the other side as radical conspirators against America.
George Will's Sunday column -- entitled We Don't Need Radical Health Care Reform -- accuses the Obama adminstration of coyly presenting a public "option" that will presage a universal public "system," a single-payer health apparatus entirely run the by the government. Obama's policies are far too ambitious given the problem of uninsured Americans, Will says, which could easily be solved with tax credits. In other words, for the most part, we should practically do nothing.
Will is right, for sure, that cutting a check to millions of Americans is a lot more politically feasible than trying dramatically change the landscape of private health care. And if you reach back one presidential term, the idea that a first-year attempt at entitlement reform threatens to change America for the worse sounds quite familiar. Here's Paul Krugman's 2004 op-ed on the Bush administration's attempts to walk Social Security toward privatization.
Privatizing Social Security - replacing the current system, in whole or in part, with personal investment accounts - won't do anything to strengthen the system's finances. If anything, it will make things worse ... But since the politics of privatization depend on convincing the public that there is a Social Security crisis, the privatizers have done their best to invent one.
[Privatizers] come to bury Social Security, not to save it. They aren't sincerely concerned about the possibility that the system will someday fail; they're disturbed by the system's historic success ... And that's why the right wants to destroy it.
The elements are all there. Krugman then (like Will now) railed against a radical plan to give an entitlement system a facelift and beat the conspiracy drum to alert readers that the government was't being honest about their plans. In both cases, opponents argued that* dramatic entitlement reform wasn't necessary, but it was a microcosm of the perverse ideology that ruled the White House and sought to change the face of America forever.
Of couse, even if history echoes it doesn't exactly repeat itself. Social Security reform in 2005 was always a battle against public opinion. But as this NYT poll demonstrates, the public is far more willing to reform health care in 2009.
*Updated: Over at the Washington Monthly, Steve Benen takes me to task for saying that health care reform is just as unnecessary today as Social Security reform was in 2005. The thing is, I never meant to say that! And when I did, I was paraphrasing George Will. I did mean to say that the arguments against today's health care reform are remarkably similar to the arguments against Social Security reform, for all the reasons I state above. That's not to say the need for reform is equivalent at all -- only that the opposing arguments are similar, with Republicans now playing the role of spoiler. Just to be clear. Thanks Steve.