On health care reform, proceed ‘wisely, and slow’

Liberals, unsatisfied with the reality coming after their fairytale ascension to power, have imagined themselves the center of a new morality play, with no less than the structure and conventions of American politics as the villain.

If this president and this Congress can’t pass healthcare reform, they say, then the system is irrevocably broken. Indiana’s Evan Bayh recently fled the Senate with this concern. And it isn’t just him.

Calls for a ban of the filibuster tactic in the Senate are common, and some have even proposed an end to the Senate’s scheme of equal representation for each state. This, of course, would require a Constitutional amendment, and maybe a new constitutional convention as Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig and some on the left desire.

All this because one unpopular bill can’t get through the Senate. Indeed, in blaming the system, the Democrats resemble nothing so much as a spoiled child crying for the candy he can’t have.

But this brings up a question: What was the last major Congressional initiative that can be viewed as an unqualified success?

Nothing Barack Obama has done could be termed as such, and George W. Bush’s signature Medicare and education bills have been widely panned.

It’s possible that the last major bill viewed kindly by both parties is Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act of 1996.

Some would argue that this is the result of crippling partisanship, either in the creation of new laws or in the historical reputation of old ones. But partisanship has always been with us — the seminal election of 1800 was probably the dirtiest on record (accusations of “hermaphroditical character” flew) — and our republic survived it.

But it is more likely that it is because Congress has abandoned the incremental ideal and instead tries to make law in great leaps.

Change in this country has usually come in increments. It has been maddeningly slow, and this is good. This is how the founders intended it.

The Congress was divided into two houses for a reason. On one hand, there is the House to represent the roiling passions of the moment, on the other hand, the Senate to dampen them.

Large, historic change, the kind Obama promised, should either be so essential and obvious in both its grand strokes and its details that to leave it undone would be both morally and politically impossible, or it should be accomplished step by tentative step.

This current healthcare plan — to be distinguished from the dire crisis that does actually face our current system — is neither essential nor obvious.

Instead of casting wildly about for someone to blame, Democrats should take the advice of Shakespeare’s friar to proceed, “Wisely, and slow, they stumble that run fast.”

Unless someone is willing to make a case for the hard truths that could someday save the healthcare system — a case that will strike the American people as essential and obvious — Congress should either do the small and safe things that will ease the immediate pain without remaking the American economy, or they should do nothing.

Perhaps we are nearing a constitutional reckoning. Perhaps the careening bulk of this welfare state will prove too much for our old covenants to bind.

Or perhaps the founders were wiser than they knew.

Reach Will at  wmunsil@asu.edu

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