As the health care debacle careens toward passage in the United States Senate, many of its opponents (including some of my close friends) are convinced that should “Obamacare” actually get to the president’s desk, it will become the transformative event that irrevocably changes America forever. Mark Steyn sums up this viewpoint well in The Corner: “. . . the object for savvy Dems is to get this thing passed in whatever form because, once you do, there’s no going back.” Mark bases this on the experience of Canada, where he cut his teeth as a columnist (and still writes for Macleans). There’s only one problem; when socialized medicine passed in Canada, it was done with the support of both major parties. In fact, the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives (as they were known) vied with each other to be the left-wing alternative to Canadian voters. That is not the case here.
More to the point, in order for Obamacare to be a game-changer, it has to survive. While I do not yet believe it will even get out of Congress (and Rich Lowry & Robert Costa explain why it wouldn’t in NRO), I further refuse to believe that it will be permanent. Contrary to popular belief, American history is replete with “permanent” programs that were supposed to dramatically change America – only to eventually end up at the bottom of the Potomac River. I’ll present just five below.
The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798): Passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress in the midst of war fever created by the “XYZ Affair” in France. In fact, said war fever was so strong that the Federalist increased their majorities in Congress after passing these (which even at the time were controversial). Vice President Thomas Jefferson (de facto leader of the opposition) was so worried about the Acts’ effects – and the Federalists using it to permanently ensconce themselves in power – that he helped convince two states (Kentucky and Virginia) to declare they had the power to invalidate federal law within their boundaries (the idea was met with derision in the rest of the country). Then came the enforcement of the Acts, which even some Federalists believed was ham-handed, at best. The revulsion of the American people ushered Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans into power in 1800. The Federalists never won another national election, and by 1820 they were finished as a national party. The Acts were repealed in 1801.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854): Hey, look! Nebraska again! Of course, the real controversy was that a new territory (Kansas) would be created and opened up for slavery. It ended the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and was met with howling rage in the North (where roughly 2/3 of the voters lived). The Democrats rammed it through Congress anyway. Northern voters responded by electing anyone who claimed to oppose Kansas: Midwestern Republicans, New England Know-Nothings (who rather brilliantly played the Giants-Stadium-like wind shifts in Massachusetts to establish themselves as the antislavery party that year), and New York Whigs. Despite this, the Democrats trudged onward. In 1858, President James Buchanan insisted Kansas was as much a slave state as Georgia was. By 1861, Buchanan was replaced by Lincoln, the secession of the South gave Republicans control of Congress, and Kansas was admitted as a free state.
Prohibition (1918): This one was actually popular when it was grafted onto the Constitution in 1918. Its enforcement quickly became laughable, yet it stayed on the books long after it lost its support. It even seemed to be approved by the voters in 1928, when the first anti-Prohibition candidate for President (Al Smith) went down to ignominious defeat to Hebert Hoover. Four years later, Hoover was bounced, and under the watchful eye and helping hand of FDR, Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Catastrophic Health Insurance (1988): I must say, this is my favorite. It was the first supposed bridge to socialized medicine, and unlike Obamacare, it had bipartisan support. Ronald Reagan himself signed this massive government expansion into law. Then, as with Prohibition and the A&S Acts, the implementation sent voters (particularly seniors) into a rage. One year later, that anger was enough for a Congress with larger majorities for the Dems and a president firmly to Reagan’s left (Bush the Elder) to reverse the decision; CHI was repealed in 1989.
Assault Weapons Ban (1994): In political terms, this is the closest to Obamacare – sure to cost the Administration and its supporters votes, but seemingly “worth it” from the policy perspective of the Left. The ban was eventually passed as part of the infamous “Crime Bill” of that year, a bill with enough Republican support to take it off the list of issues that led to the Republican 1994 surge. The law would sunset in ten years – right smack in the middle of the 2004 campaign. True to form, the president running for re-election that year (Bush the Younger) insisted that he would sign an assault-weapons ban extension if a bill ever reached him, and his opponent (John Kerry) pushed for Congress to pass such an extension. Congress refused to do so – among those voting against extension was none other than John McCain – and the assault weapons ban expired in 2004.
Five acts of legislation. All were considered political game-changers. All were expected to be chiseled into the foundation of American society. None of them lasted more than fifteen years.
There is no reason to automatically assume Obamacare (should it even pass) will be any different.