President Obama famously promised the country “change we can believe in.” As a longtime Massachusetts resident, one change I would never have believed in until shortly before it actually happened is a conservative Republican winning a Senate seat in my home state. No Republican has won a Senate race in the Bay State since 1972, and even then it was liberal Edward Brooke. With some justice, the White House will point out that Democratic nominee Martha Coakley was a poor candidate. But a Democrat usually doesn’t have to be a good candidate to win in Massachusetts. Normally, it’s enough to be a warm body with a D next to her name. The fact that the election was even close is a sign that the administration and its agenda have become unpopular.
Back in 2008, I wrote that, despite many reservations about McCain and the GOP, I feared an Obama victory because the combination of unified Democratic control of government and a crisis atmosphere was likely to lead to a vast expansion of federal spending and regulation. Naturally, I have to ask whether recent events have proven me wrong. If Obama is this unpopular in liberal Massachusetts, he is likely to have great difficulty in enacting an expansive legislative agenda, especially if the Republicans make major gains in November as many analysts expect.
I either overestimated Obama’s political skills or underestimated the structural obstacles he would have to overcome; probably it was some combination of both errors. His window of opportunity for major left-liberal policy changes is closing faster than I expected. Probably faster than Obama himself expected too.
At the same time, I don’t think I was totally wrong. Obama has already secured an enormous increase in government spending with last year’s $800 billion “stimulus” bill, putting in place policies that will greatly expand federal expenditures for years to come. Despite Scott Brown’s victory, the Democrats still have several options for pushing the health care bill through Congress. For example, they can get the House to pass the version already enacted by the Senate, thereby cutting Brown out of the process. Meanwhile, several other important expansions of government are making their way through Congress, and have attracted much less popular opposition than the health care bill. One example is the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would vastly expand federal regulation of financial products. Some of these are highly technical in nature, and could pass in part because most voters won’t notice or understand them.
If the health care bill and some of these other items pass, the Obama administration will still have presided over the largest expansion of government since at least the 1960s, surpassing President George W. Bush’s dubious record. Significantly, the Bush spending explosion also occurred in part because of the combination of united government and crisis. Once enacted, major expansions in spending and regulation are very difficult to reverse.We are still saddled with some of the more dubious policies enacted during the Great Depression, such as massive agricultural subsidies and output restrictions that drive up the price of food. I fear that Obama’s policies will be equally difficult to reverse. If a health insurance mandate is enacted, it will create a ratchet for further expansions of government, as various interest groups lobby to increase the range of conditions against which people are required to buy insurance.
In sum, I fear that the potent brew of unified government, crisis, and widespread political ignorance leads to greatly expanded government even when the administration in power makes political errors and is countered by a well-organized opposition. It now looks like I overestimated Obama’s ability to exploit the economic crisis to increase the power of government. At the same time, the administration hasn’t exactly “let a serious crisis go to waste” either.
UPDATE: The the Democratic leaders in the House seem interested in pursuing the Senate bill, which they consider to be “better than nothing.” We will see if they stick to that view.
UPDATE #2: Many House Democrats are now saying that they don’t like the idea of passing the Senate bill, while others want to leave the door open to it. As noted above, the Democrats still have several other options available for passing a major health care bill in the near future. Whether any of them can get through Congress remains to be seen.