Argument Without End

by E.J. Dionne Jr. | April 5, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Toward the end of the health care battle, a beleaguered Obama staff member sent me an e-mail that ended with the words: "Sisyphus was a sissy compared to what we've been through!"

Yes, the fight for health care seemed very much like the Greek myth: Every time the White House found itself on the verge of rolling the health care stone up the hill, some event -- say, Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts -- would force it to start over with a new strategy.

Alas for President Obama, this will not be the last moment that invites comparisons with Sisyphus. His health care victory marked the beginning of a new phase in the administration's political struggles, not a final triumph.

It is still, of course, an enormous achievement, and it alters the political terrain in ways that are favorable to Democrats. By creating new facts on the ground, health reform complicates the Republicans' task.

Already, the GOP's early calls to repeal the bill look problematic. The insurance reforms in the bill are widely popular, and even its tax increases (a large share of which hit the very wealthy) are tied to benefits that would flow to Americans in the middle- or lower-middle range of incomes.

In addition, Republicans concede a great deal when they say they would "replace" the plan and not simply return to the pre-reform status quo. Their slogan makes clear that all future arguments about health care will be premised on a more active government role. The debate will never be the same again.

Moreover, the Democrats' ability to hold together and pass health reform may encourage some Republican senators to seek compromises on other issues rather than stand aside yet again and thereby limit their impact on final outcomes.

But the outlines of the next phase of this year's election argument are becoming visible.

Sophisticated conservatives have begun to argue that Democratic proposals across a range of issues are designed to make the United States more like Europe. Without shouting the word "socialism," they claim that programs to guarantee greater economic security (such as the health reform) and to impose more stringent rules on finance and banking would make the American economy less entrepreneurial and less inclined to risk-taking.

Countering these arguments will require progressives to insist that their program is entirely within the American tradition, an effort to restore some of the security and predictability that defined the economy before the erosion of employer-provided benefits that began in the 1980s.

They will also have to make a strong case that the new rules on finance are not aimed at reducing genuine private risk-taking. Their purpose is to end a system that allowed a small number of financiers and firms to make fortunes by taking enormous risks in full knowledge that taxpayers would ultimately be forced to cover their losses. Reform is designed to reduce the exposure of taxpayers and those outside the financial system, not to create a risk-free private economy.

The trickiest political problem confronting the administration and its allies is rooted in rising concern about the deficit. Here, Republicans will be able to engage in their own kind of risk-free politics. As the party out of power, they can condemn deficits, attack "big government" in the abstract, and oppose tax increases -- all at the same time, and without facing the consequences of how their policies would work in practice.

And because any plausible policy for dealing with long-term deficits will necessarily involve tax increases of some sort, Obama and the Democrats are looking at an unpalatable election-year choice. Endorsing substantial tax increases now would be politically suicidal, but failing to do so opens Democrats to charges from deficit hawks that they are not serious about the red ink.

In the short term, Democrats can argue reasonably that raising taxes or slashing programs before the economy has recovered would be bad policy. And they can assert that the commission Obama has named to grapple with the deficit will clarify the trade-offs between tax increases and program cuts. This, in turn, will open the way for a more rational argument about deficits.

It would be nice if things worked out this way. But between now and then lies an election campaign likely to be characterized more by anger than reason, and in which the opposition has the advantage of not being in charge at a moment of great discontent. Sisyphus would understand. And Obama will have to get used to it.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com. (c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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