Entry from March 25, 2010

Yesterday I wrote of the arguments to be made on behalf of David Frum’s view that Obamacare is now substantially in place forever and impossible of repeal. As Daniel Finkelstein pointed out, those who opposed the bill on behalf (more or less) of the status quo are now confounded because it has become the status quo. Doubtless, the most fervent opponents of the new law will continue to fight for its repeal, but they will lose more and more electoral support as people grow accustomed to the new arrangements and, as the President himself predicted, also grow attached to the law’s more popular features, such as its protection of those with pre-existing conditions from cancellation or its allowing children to be insured on their parents’ policies until they are 26. This is the more likely if, as seems possible, most of the costs will not be apparent to most of the people affected by them until 2014. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post cites what he regards as a relevant historical parallel: Alf Landon’s promise to repeal Social Security, which had been passed into law as a part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. And we all know what happened to Alf Landon. He was buried under the Roosevelt landslide of 1936.

No one knows for sure, of course, if the Frum-Finkelstein-Milbank scenario will play out as advertised, but one factor to consider is the persistence of historicist assumptions in all the arguments from “history” these days, both from left and right. Or do I mean the persistence of historicist arguments in all our assumptions about history? I would not be surprised to learn that the words “historic” and “history-making” and their equivalents got even more of a workout in the press in the past week than they did in the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s election. Admittedly, I was a child in the 1960s, but I don’t remember such talk, not to anything like the same degree, about what are now spoken of as the epoch-making Medicare or Medicaid or even civil rights legislation of that era. It’s almost as if the progressives think that the measure’s history-making quality were more important than what is in it.

And in a way they do. That’s often the point of putting the legislation into a particular historical context: to show that history made it not just understandable but inevitable. “This is,” as E.J. Dionne put it in the Washington Post, echoing Mr Milbank on Social Security, “a moment of history, a culmination of the legacies of Truman and Franklin Roosevelt.” That’s what validates it in his view. The same paper’s Ceci Connolly gave even freer rein to her romantic nature in providing an epic account of the bill’s passage headed “61 days from near-defeat to victory: How Obama revived his health-care bill.” On January 19, she writes, with the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, prospects looked bleak for hope ‘n’ change and the President who had sworn to produce them.

By now, he was to have signed into law a landmark bill guaranteeing health care to every American, the broadest piece of social policy legislation since President Lyndon B. Johnson”s Great Society. Instead, he was confronting the very real prospect of failure on an equally grand scale. The remarkable change in political fortunes thrust Obama into a period of uncertainty and demonstrated the ability of one person to control the balance of power in Washington. On Jan. 19, that person seemed to be Brown. But as the next 61 days would show, culminating in Sunday night”s historic vote, the fate of the legislation ultimately rested in the hands of Obama, who in the hours before Brown”s victory was growing increasingly frustrated as [Nancy] Pelosi detailed why no answer was in sight.
There went health-care reform.
There went history.

More portentous nonsense of a similar sort follows, including even an asseveration that Nancy Pelosi.”was one of history”s most skilled vote-getters.” Would she have been “history’s vote-getter” it if the votes she was getting had been against, rather than for the health care bill? I doubt it. The bill was history’s too.

A few may believe, as the ever-reliable Obamaphile Jonathan Chait of The New Republic put it, that “historians will see this health care bill as a masterfully crafted piece of legislation.” He also thinks that, with the bill, “Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import.” But I doubt if many of even its most fervent supporters think of it as more than a first step. Thus Katrina vanden Heuvel

How historic is the health-care reform bill that President Obama signed into law this morning? The bill only begins the long task of taking back control of the health-care system from rapacious insurance and drug companies. We must work to include a real public option and to eliminate the insurance industry”s antitrust exemption.

That is why the new law’s historic nature is so important: not because of what it does in itself but because it is an earnest of that inexorable law of historic progress that will eventually produce the socialist utopia. The left in America may not be socialist, but many of its most fervent supporters think like Marxists — because they think that history is on their side. Of course if you believe in their utopian vision, even as a utopian nightmare, you are going to be persuaded that the changes, once made, must be forever. History tells us so. But if you don’t share those historicist assumptions, you have no reason not to believe that hope and change is a two-way street and that the hopes even of reactionaries may one day be realized too.

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