There’s nothing wrong with an American President being a member of the elite — having a fine education, a refined personal manner or the ability to form a complete English sentence. Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrated all three. Bill Clinton had two-out-of-three. And even George W. Bush was batting .333 — with degrees from Harvard and Yale. The problem is elitism — a style of governing that demonstrates one’s belief that society should be ruled by the elite even in the face of adverse public opinion.
John Kerry and Michael Dukakis ran for President as elitists, and lost. Jimmy Carter governed as an elitist, and lost the American people. Obama, in sharp contrast, convinced many thoughtful independents and some Republicans to support him because he campaigned as someone smart and confident enough to rebut his opponents’ arguments on the merits, not by attacking their motives.
After all, he ran against Hillary Clinton criticising her support of an individual health insurance mandate, arguing instead that government should simply make health care more affordable. And he opposed the Iraq war, not as an anti-war candidate but because it was a “a dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
Everyone knew of his belief that liberal policies were good for the long-term future of the country. But where Hillary Clinton had demonized the insurance industry in 1994, Obama promised to give them a seat at the table — as long as the negotiations were broadcast on CSPAN. But instead of honest debates we found ourselves in a permanent legislative crisis mode. We had a Stimulus Bill that was too urgent to allow Congress 72 hours to read it before they voted. The urgency, of course, was to pass it before the public could read it. How urgent could it have been, since most of its outlays were deferred for months if not years?
Instead of active use of the veto power, we saw a half-trillion dollar appropriation bill larded with earmarks. When Obama was urged by Republicans to veto the bill he balked. Keeping the government running was too important, he said, as he promised vaguely to lay down clear lines against waste in the future. “Let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business, and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability that the American people have every right to expect and to demand.”
But in the same speech he acknowledged the prerogative of the ruling class to decide without public oversight how best to spend the people’s money. “As a former Senator, I believe that individual members of Congress understand their districts best. They should have the ability to respond to the needs of their communities.” But if earmarks properly reflected the legitimate judgment of individual members of Congress — why was there any need to reform the process in the future? If it was OK now, why wasn’t it OK in the future? The excuse was transparent.
As to Obamacare, there is certainly an argument that it was the best bill that was feasible at the time, and it might even be good for America in the long run. Perhaps its detailed provisions were simply too complex for the typical American to understand and appreciate. But those are the arguments of an elitist. A street-smart member of the political elite would have appreciated the need to have a bill that could be explained to the average citizen — the way F.D.R. explained aid to Great Britain as akin to lending a length of hose to your neighbour whose house was burning down.
With Americans terrified of unemployment the perfect sound-bite for 2009 was obvious. “Right now, if you lose your job, you lose your healthcare! And even if you can afford to buy your own policy, they can still deny you coverage, saying you have a pre-existing condition! But isn’t that why you’ve been paying in all these years? That’s just legalized fraud.” The needed reform was self-evident — permanent government-subsidized COBRA benefits for anyone who loses their job or leaves it to start a small business. Perhaps also a nationwide “open season” for private catastrophic coverage, every year, for everyone turning 18 or graduating from high school or college. With such a large group joining every year, no individual mandate would have been needed. Some Republicans might have opposed that — but only at their peril. No way such simple reforms could be called “socialism”. If past generations had been required to register for the draft at age 18, surely it would not be too much to tell 18-year olds that they must either start buying insurance now or face a denial when they needed it later.
But the highly educated liberal elites decided that they knew best, and that this was the time for a “comprehensive” policy revolution, not evolution towards a more progressive future. Most importantly, even when it was clear that they didn’t have public support for their policies, the elites chose elitism, a fateful decision. George W. Bush, it is true, also pushed policies he thought were “best” for the country in the long run. But he was “prudent” enough (to use a phrase often attributed to his father) to first obtain bipartisan majorities. When leading Democratic senators decided to vote for the Iraq War resolution without bothering to read the intelligence reports, that was their own personal decision. It was not because they weren’t given 72 hours to read them.
Donald B. Susswein is a Washington lawyer who practices and writes in the areas of taxation, tax and fiscal policy, and financial institutions and products. He served as an advisor on these issues to the Committee on Finance of the United States Senate. He writes a weekly column for Benzinga every Tuesday.