Commentary Magazine


Voters Want to Change the Topic

In a column in the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Tom Coburn writes:

I spoke with thousands of voters at town-hall meetings this summer. What I gathered from them is that it’s not just the proposed overhaul of health care that has them upset. Many also expressed a sense of betrayal. In spite of their hope for change, it still appears that the government in Washington is run for its own benefit and the benefit of special interests—not for the benefit of the American people. The folks I met with also don’t trust politicians in Washington to address mounting long-term challenges to our economy.

Despite the town halls and ample polling data, the president and Congress just don’t get it, he says:

Notwithstanding these polling results, the administration and Congress have responded by trying to win public support on the strength of an argument that’s too clever to be true. They say that the key to saving money is spending money, a lot of money. And they’ve done just that with a $787 billion stimulus program as well as billions in bailouts and proposals to spend vast sums on health-care reform and other things. Their belief seems to be that every government expenditure grows the economy or can be counterbalanced with cost savings.

It’s a confusing argument, and it’s flat wrong, particularly with regard to health care. The Congressional Budget Office has said as much when it stated a few weeks ago that the health-care legislation before Congress fails to restrain costs and instead “significantly expands the federal responsibility for health-care costs.”
A more convincing argument would be this: Let’s save money by spending less. This argument doesn’t require a clever explanation.

It does, however, require a complete about-face from Washington and a realization that the public isn’t freaked out by a “health-care crisis” but by a fiscal crisis. Obama and the Democratic Congress tried to convince Americans, the vast majority with insurance they like, that not only was the health-care system in America in shambles but also that the existing spending binge had to be ramped up to pay for health care for millions. Oh, and Medicare is going to get slashed. You understand the reason why the president had difficulty selling this. At bottom, it is unintelligible.

But more than that, if Coburn is right, repackaging the same concepts isn’t going to get the president anywhere. Voters would just as soon prefer he do something else entirely—on fiscal control and restraining government entitlements, not expanding them. We’ll see if the public’s angst about government spending and the mound of accumulating debt can be soothed by a fancier health-care sales job.

But I suspect Coburn is on to something. Obama wants more government, spending, and taxes; voters want less of all three. The longer Obama persists in pushing what voters don’t want, the worse his political predicament will become.