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COVID Politics: Insider Closers vs. Outsider Openers

As with the Obamacare debate, there is a mismatch between raucous masses and earnest elites.

(By Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock)

The fractious politics of coronavirus-related lockdowns—“closers” vs. “openers”—sends one’s mental calendar spinning back to another time when healthcare issues were prominent. Then as now, the situation was parallel: The earnest elites, seeking to help society, were on one side, and the raucous masses, seeking to preserve their way of life, were on the other.

And as the two contending sides duked it out, public opinion shifted several times, such that when the dust settled, both sides, elites and masses, had won some and lost some.

You see, back in 2008, the healthcare establishment believed it had the answer to America’s health needs: national health insurance. Campaigning hard on the issue, the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, made bold promises about his plan: It would save every American family $2,500, he vowed.  And if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your current health plan, you can keep it. All that—and more! So it was little wonder, according to Gallup, that national health insurance polled strongly.

Indeed, Obama won a big victory that year, being sworn in alongside substantial Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. And everybody remembers what happened after that: The new healthcare bill, as drafted, proved to be a lot more than just Harry Truman-style lunch-bucket solidarity; it also included scary cost-savings jargon, such as QALY and DALY. This was the sort of technocratese heard all the time at Harvard’s Kennedy School, but not so much at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart. In addition, the bill included plenty of woke prescriptions for a better, bluer, America, such as taxpayer-funded abortions and sex-change operations.

Yet even as critics swarmed the new bill, Democrats persisted. Thus the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—soon to be known as Obamacare—slogged its way to passage in March 2010. But then came the real backlash: Tea Party-ized Republicans cried “socialism” and “death panels,” pledging to repeal Obamacare “root and branch.” As a result, the GOP won control of the House in 2010 and of the Senate in 2014. (In between, in 2012, Obama was re-elected, albeit by a much smaller margin than he had in ’08.)

After the 2016 elections, Republicans had all the marbles in Washington: Trump occupied the White House, and the GOP enjoyed continued control of both chambers on Capitol Hill. And so many thought that Republicans would now find a way to fulfill their anti-Obamacare pledge.

Yet then something interesting happened: At about the exact same time that Trump was sworn in, Obamacare surged in popularity; perhaps because the benefits of the program were finally kicking in, or perhaps because Trump opposed it, thus crystallizing its support among the #Resistance. In any case, most of Obamacare survived the 115th Congress (the individual mandate, the requirement to have health insurance, was effectively repealed in the 2017 tax cut).

And when Republicans lost the House in 2018, any further prospect of chipping away at Obamacare vanished—even as, interestingly enough, the GOP actually gained a net of two seats in the Senate.

So as we look back at the decade of the 2010s, we see that the politics of healthcare were something of a wash: Each party took turns owning Congress and the White House—and each party misread the politics of healthcare.

For their part, Democrats imposed a Berkeley, CA-type healthcare plan on a country that also includes Berkeley, MO, Berkeley Springs, WV, and Berkeley County, SC. At the same time, Republicans, too, misread the country; GOP cadres, assigning the vanguard role to themselves and their libertarian ideology, looked upon the Obama years as the springboard to a Rand Paul presidency. Instead, they got Donald Trump.

Moreover, it turned out that those raucous masses—the folks who actually vote, as opposed to those who write position papers—were never libertarians at all; they might have loathed Obama and “Big Government,” but they loved Medicare and Social Security (including the health-related SSI program), and they even sort of liked Medicaid (which was expanded under Obamacare in 2010 and has continued to expand ever since).

Today, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s long-running tracking poll, Obamacare enjoys an 11-point margin of support.

Now with the coronavirus, we see a similar misplay between earnest elites and raucous masses. When the severity of the crisis became apparent to all in early March—some alarmist statistical models were predicting millions of deaths–it seemed obvious and necessary for federal and state officials to follow the advice of the earnest elites and to order lockdowns; as for the raucous masses, they were initially too bowled over by the apparent menace to raise much of a protest. After all, nobody wanted to be outdoors during a zombie apocalypse.

Of course, in the absence of zombies, or of people dropping dead in the streets, anti-lockdown protests soon erupted; in this country, somebody is always protesting something. At first the protesters seemed to be little more than surviving Tea Partiers, flecked with neo-Confederates—a perception that the media was only too happy to reinforce—and yet over the past few weeks, it’s become clear that the reopen movement is broader than just the anti, the angry, and the Trumpy.

Indeed, as this author noted last week, blue-state politicians, including incumbent Democrats, are now in favor of reopening, albeit in a sometimes inconsistent and arbitrary fashion. In fact, some recognized members of the earnest healthcare policy elite have gone so far as to write in The New York Times, “As circumstances have evolved, so has my thinking”—that is, time to open up.

Yet in the meantime, populists—aided by Republican researchers—are tallying up incidents of blue-state condescension and hypocrisy, as the woke and the wealthy have imposed one set of rules on the proles, even as they themselves live by another set of rules.

For instance, there were the orders about closing down churches, but not liquor stores.  And there was the governor’s wife who ignored her husband’s lockdown order and flew by private jet to her equestrian farm in another state.  And there was the state public health chief who pulled her mother out of a nursing home even while ordering such homes to accept Covid-19 patients. (That official was the first transgender person to hold such a post, so she gets extra points for wokeness, if not for fairness.)

Indeed, the comedian Ruth Buzzi—best known for her appearances on the Laugh-In TV show in the late 60s and early 70s—tweeted about some of the many weirdnesses of the current situation: “Marijuana is legal and haircuts are against the law. It took half a century but Hippies finally won.”

In the meantime, many people—including Elon Musk, who defies ideological categorization, and including as well African American partiers in Florida, not likely to be Republicans—are simply ignoring the remaining restrictions. The hard-pressed police, betwixt and between the rulers and the ruled, can’t arrest them all.

It’s in this environment that The Washington Examinertook note of a Gallup poll showing that a whopping 63 percent of Americans support reopening, if new cases of the virus are declining. To be sure, that’s a big “if,” and yet for the time being, it doesn’t seem coincidental that Gallup also finds that the approval rating of President Trump—who has mostly supported reopening and who has always been contemptuous of those earnest elites—has edged into positive territory.

Thus we come to the mega political question of 2020: Could this virus crisis, which is said to have killed nearly 100,000 Americans—actually turn out to be a plus for Trump’s re-election prospects? Could the current confusion, and blue vs. red confrontation, really sort itself into a Trump and/or Republican victory?

To be sure, the polls show Joe Biden holding a modest lead, and Democrats staying ahead in key senate races, and yet between now and November, the political rollercoaster will have to wend its way through many more corkscrews.

Still, this much we do know: Just as in the Obamacare debate of a decade ago, the earnest elites will invoke “science” (including the often PC wannabe of social science) in their newest health crusade, while the raucous masses, inarticulate as they tend to be, have mostly their instincts, passions, and conspiracy theories (typically all politically incorrect).

So in this battle of blue dots vs. red boonies, who will prevail? And where will purple suburbs end up?

As the Obamacare saga demonstrated, the winner in one election is not likely to be the winner in the next election after that. And so that’s the question in this political whirl: Where will the electoral roulette ball first land—on red? or on blue?

about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a longtime contributing editor at The American Conservative, columnist, and author. He served as longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (1995).He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. 

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