Stolen from the Republicans

Jon Margolis

October 01, 1993|By Jon Margolis

THE really smart people knew enough last week to examine the fine print and not be fooled by President Clinton's inspirational rhetoric.

So smart are they, so carefully did they examine the fine print, that they never saw the ground shift beneath them.

First of all, Mr. Clinton stole optimism back from the Republicans. He hasn't yet escaped with it; they had a pretty firm grip on it and Democrats have forgotten what it looks like. But at least he grabbed it.

And then, the conservatives became Marxists.

Well, probably they always were. It just became clearer.

More on that presently. As to optimism, it used to be a Democratic possession. Franklin Roosevelt embodied it, Harry Truman kept it and it was John Kennedy's 1960 slogan -- "we can do better." In response, Richard Nixon would clear his throat and remind young Kennedy how complex everything was.

Even in defeat, the Democrats managed to keep a hold on optimism until the late 1970s. By then, the party was in thrall to academic intellectuals, who delight in their inability to do anything at all. It was in their spirit that Jimmy Carter withdrew to a mountaintop from which he bemoaned how infernally complex everything was.

So it wasn't too difficult for Ronald Reagan to steal optimism from the Democrats in 1980. Mr. Reagan didn't think anything was all that complex, and he was confident that the best was yet to come. In this sense Mr. Reagan really was the "cultural Democrat" some Republican strategists would call him.

Jimmy Carter was right, of course, as was Richard Nixon before him. Things are complex. But complex is not the same as impossible, and it has never been good politics in this country either to complain about complexity or to surrender to it.

Unlike Mr. Reagan, Mr. Clinton acknowledges complexity. But he's confident that things can get better and that he can help them get there. That was the underpinning of his health-care speech.

It may not really have been the "magic moment" he called it; presidents do get a bit carried away with themselves. But it was an important moment as an illustration of his determination to change things for the better.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, something of a cultural Democrat himself, knew enough to keep his counsel. But most Republicans were reduced to ideological rhetoric or to the constant claim of pessimists: The numbers don't add up.

They don't know that because nobody does. Not everything can be quantified, and the Clinton health plan transcends health care. If it succeeds even moderately, its impact will be broader.

It might, for instance, make a whole lot of people healthier, and therefore more productive. Uninsured low-income workers rarely go to doctors when they should. As a result they either get sicker or they get better more slowly, in weeks instead of days, during which they are absent or ineffective on the job. The economic benefit of their enhanced fitness cannot be measured, but it might be immense.

Some Republicans don't want to recognize this, not because they want low-income people to be sick, but because if a new, comprehensive government program actually improves people's lives, voters might remember the other good things their government does for them. This would make life harder for Republicans.

So they have to claim that the plan can't possibly work, that costs will outstrip revenue, which will require new taxes, which will cost millions of jobs and ruin the economy. Thus, the conservative as Marxist.

Who else these days believes in inevitable historic forces which overwhelm mere human will? If a health-care plan is enacted and has problems, came the chorus from the "free market" talking heads on the cable stations, we are all doomed.

Calm down, fellas. This is a democracy. It is in the hands of free and competent citizens. If things don't work perfectly, the people acting through their democratic institutions can change them.

The administration may well be using optimistic assumptions when it insists that its plan will pay for itself. If so, if the plan is enacted and runs a deficit after a few years, then the people can decide to restrict coverage, increase deductibles, raise taxes or enact some combination of the above, depending on the situation at the time.

In other words, the nation has control of its own destiny. That's a pretty good definition of optimism, though not of Marxism.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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