Friday, January 8, 2010

Paging Dr. Pyrrhus!

Pyrrhus was king of Epirus, a small kingdom in Greece, when Rome was an aspiring superpower. He was immortalized after a costly victory over the Romans broke the back of his army and forced him to give up his invasion of Italy. Ever after, a victory whose cost ruined the victor was termed a Pyrrhic victory.

In an unusually astute column, Peggy Noonan describes the Pyrrhic victory Obama and the Democrats are in the middle of winning.
What a blunder [health care reform] has been, win or lose, what a miscalculation on the part of the president. The administration misjudged the mood and the moment. Mr. Obama ran, won, was sworn in and began his work under the spirit of 2008—expansive, part dreamy and part hubristic. But as soon as he was inaugurated ,the president ran into the spirit of 2009—more dug in, more anxious, more bottom-line—and didn't notice. At the exact moment the public was announcing it worried about jobs first and debt and deficits second, the administration decided to devote its first year to health care, which no one was talking about. The great recession changed everything, but not right away.
Then Noonan makes what seems to be a frighteningly accurate observation:
I am wondering if the Obama administration thinks it vaguely dishonorable to be popular. If you mention to Obama staffers that they really have to be concerned about the polls, they look at you with a certain . . . not disdain but patience, as if you don't understand the purpose of politics. That purpose, they believe, is to move the governed toward greater justice. Just so, but in democracy you do this by garnering and galvanizing public support. But they think it's weaselly to be well thought of. [...]

The Obama people have taken to pointing out how their guy doesn't govern by the polls. This is all too believable. The Bush people, too, used to bang away about how he didn't govern by the polls. They both added unneeded stress to the past 10 years, and it is understandable if many of us now think, "Oh for a president who'd govern by the polls."
There's a word for people who think this way in politics: ideologues.

It seems obvious that most of the Democrats who voted for this policy (aside from whores like Ben Nelson) are motivated chiefly by ideology, not by political calculations or self-interest. This might seem noble, until one reflects on the fact that a growing majority -- a majority! -- of the country opposes the health care reform bills in the House and Senate. Democrats know that voting for this bill will cost them seats in 2010; possibly it will cost them control of Congress. They don't care. They see government-controlled health care as a good in itself, and they appear to have calculated (correctly, in my opinion) that if they can just get people locked into government-controlled health care schemes that future generations won't be able to undo it.

Cynical, crass politicians are a scourge, but they can be motivated by self-interest. How do you use self-interest to check the policies of someone motivated by ideology? You can't. Martyrs can't be deterred by questions of self-interest.

Maybe health care reform isn't such a blunder for the Dems after all.

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