No, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney Did Not Enact Obamacare

The Washington Examiner‘s Phillip Klein is one of the Right’s more sensible pundits. But in his column on the Tenth Anniversary of the Iraq War, he sneaks one of the more important conservative revisions of American political history through the back door:

In 2004, with the memory of the defeat of the Clinton health care plan still fresh enough in people’s minds, the idea of a Democratic president passing universal health care legislation would have seemed like a distant liberal fantasy. In fact, in the Democratic primary, even Howard Dean’s health care proposal (that mostly built on existing government programs) was tame by today’s standards.

But by 2006, with sectarian violence escalating in Iraq, President Bush’s approval rating had cratered and Democrats were able to take over both chambers of Congress in an election that was largely a backlash against the war. Exit polls showed that 56 percent of Americans who voted in that year’s midterm elections opposed the Iraq War — and 80 percent of that group voted for Democrats.

Suddenly, there was a change in what seemed politically possible. In 2007, as the Democratic presidential primary season got under way, emboldened liberal activists were able to convince all of the top contenders to release universal health care plans.

You kind of have to reason back from the fact that the “politically impossible” Obamacare proposal that Klein says only the backlash to the Iraq War enabled was itself based on a long series of Republican proposals, not just Romneycare but a Republican alternative to Clintoncare back in the 90s. That fact reinforces the related fact that Democrats have pretty much been committed to the goal of universal publicly-established health coverage since the Truman administration (e.g., the supposedly “conservative” Democratic Leadership Council always made universal health coverage a high-priority goal), while differing on the means and pace, and differing with Republicans who sometimes flatly defended the status quo and sometimes issued their own competing coverage-expansion proposals. As a whole, these latter were pretty much the template for Obamacare.

The idea that big Democratic health coverage plans suddenly appeared for the first time since 1994 during the 2008 presidential cycle, as “emboldened liberal activists” went for the gold gambling on a landslide, is simply not true. All the 2004 Democratic candidates had comprehensive health reform proposals (no, they didn’t all provide 100% coverage, but neither does Obamacare), and they actually spent as much time talking about them as Clinton and Obama did in 2008.

But here’s the howler:

On top of Obama’s 2008 victory, congressional Democrats were able to build on their gains from 2006, so that once all the votes were counted (and Sen. Arlen Specter defected) they had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. It was only the lopsided nature of the majorities that allowed a plan as ambitious as Obamacare to become law.

Um, no, that’s got it almost completely backwards. It was the Republican Party’s collective decision to refuse to accept any form of health care reform, even those modeled on past GOP proposals, followed by the Senate Republican decision to filibuster any legislation to the bitter end, that made 60 votes for Obamacare necessary. That’s when the 2008 landslide, in which stubborn GOP support for an endless war in Iraq was indeed a factor, became important.

There’s no telling what contemporary politics would be like had George W. Bush not listened to his vice president and his advisers and invaded Iraq on false pretenses. Maybe he could have governed more successfully, but then just maybe he might have lost in 2004 had he and his party not been able to spend three solid years convincing Americans they needed to kill a lot of Arabs in order to avenge the killing of a lot of Americans by Arabs in 2001. The Bush administration had a lot of domestic failures, substantive and political, and by the time the 2006 elections rolled around, its stewardship of the economy was a big problem exacerbated by Republican refusal to admit things weren’t just peachy. And unless you go through a Rube Goldberg machine to explain connections, it’s not all that clear that the Iraq War caused the economic disaster that left Bush a feckless bystander and Barack Obama the odds-on favorite in 2008.

By the time Congress finally got to vote on the Affordable Care Act, the bill was a health-care-expansion scheme that was based more on Republican than Democratic policy precedents, and secured (because King Filibuster required it) support from senators ranging from Bernie Sanders to Ben Nelson. The idea it was some radical bill that would have never been even imagined as possible without the Iraq War is far, far off the mark.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.