March 9, 2010
Ungovernable Savages?By Mason Boyer
Saying that Washington is broken is so yesterday. Like denim, this sentiment will never go all the way out of style, and periodically it will rise to the height of fashion, but those on the cutting edge have moved on for now. It's not Washington that's broken -- it's the American people!
Bill Maher has been calling Americans stupid since last summer. Evan Thomas writes in Newsweek that Americans are typically irresponsible, fat, over-sexed, and think they are smarter than they really are. Thomas Friedman continuously laments in the New York Times that the American people are neither as enlightened nor as disciplined as the Chinese.
Robert Samuelson, holding nothing back, writes that Americans often "say things that are stupid, misleading or unattainable and think (or pretend) that these very same things are desirable, candid and realistic."
President Obama's biggest mistake with health care reform, then, was underestimating the depth of the electorate's recalcitrance. He foolishly assumed that the majority of Americans were reasonable, that the evils of the current system and the benefits of his reform package were self-evident. Just in case, he spent all of last year telling us sad stories about the victims of the status quo and promising to right all the wrongs perpetrated by those dastardly insurance companies.
But too many Americans appear to have thick skulls, as evidenced by Scott Brown's election in January. In the aftermath of Massachusetts, Obama expressed regret for being "so focused on just getting things done" that he didn't take enough time to explain those things clearly to all the Neanderthals.
Unfortunately, the president's renewed vigor hasn't raised our collective IQ. According to a Zogby poll conducted in late January/early February, 69% of the more than 2,500 Americans questioned think that Congress should either go back to the drawing board or take a more incremental approach. A CNN poll in mid-February unearthed similar results: 73% want Congress to either start over on a new bill or stop working on health care reform altogether.
The average American clearly does not understand the magnitude of the crisis. In the most recent Rasmussen poll, 76% rate their own health coverage as good or excellent. A vast majority of Americans fail to appreciate what their wise leaders are trying to do for them, as only 25% believe that the proposed comprehensive reform will improve their own health care.
Obama seems to have finally accepted the bitter reality that the simplemindedness of the electorate is simply impenetrable. Last Wednesday, the president vowed to push forward with or without the support of the unenlightened, saying, "I do not know how [health care reform] plays politically, but I know it's right."
To be fair, a leader proceeding against popular sentiment because he believes it's the right thing to do does need courage. William Galston argues in The New Republic that Obama is following the example set by George W. Bush, who stayed the course in Iraq despite mounting discontent and outright opposition.
But there is a thin line between leadership and dictatorship.
Unlike the proposed health care reform, the Iraq war was well-supported in its early days. According to Pew Research, in March of 2003, when the war began, 72% of Americans thought it was the right decision to use military force. By September of 2003, 64% of Americans still believed that we should keep troops in Iraq until the country is stabilized. President Bush did not take us to war against the expressed opinion of a large majority.
It wasn't until mid-2005 -- two full years later -- that the percentages of Americans for and against the war began to pull even, developing into a steady majority opposition in 2007. By then, however, it was too late to cut and run, irrespective of popular opposition, because we had assumed responsibility for tens of millions of Iraqi lives. No serious leader, including now Obama, wanted all that blood on his hands.
With health care reform, Obama still has a choice. His proposal enjoyed slight majority support in its earliest conceptual days, but that support has been steadily declining. Unlike Bush, who had an overwhelming majority behind him when he gave our troops the command to open fire in Iraq, Obama -- if he signs this reform into law -- will be consciously thwarting the clearly expressed desires of a large majority of the American people.
President Obama, the consummate politician, has a lighter touch than the pundits. He knows that he can't justify his belligerence by calling us stupid. In his impromptu press conference on February 9, he went instead with the also-fashionable sausage-making metaphor: "[T]he process ... actually contaminates how [people] view the substance of the bills."
Yes, sausage-making is ugly, but the hot dog is an American institution. We really don't care much about -- and would rather not see -- how the sausage was made, so long as we like the way it tastes.
With the chains of tyranny fresh and heavy on their minds, the founding fathers designed a system that makes it hard for our elected officials to make sweeping intrusions into our lives. Sometimes -- especially when times are tough and passions are inflamed -- this style of government gets noisy, messy, and frustratingly ponderous, just as the founding fathers intended it to be.
Washington is not broken, we are not ungovernable savages, and we don't have weak stomachs -- it's the sausage, stupid.