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Obama's Requiem for the Postwar Consensus

There is no Red America and there is no Blue America. Remember the first time you heard Barack Obama say that? I do. It was July, 2004, during the Democratic National Convention, when the young, skinny state senator from Illinois propelled himself into national politics.

The speech was a harbinger. Finding common ground was a recurring theme of Obama’s 2008 campaign and, arguably, of his first two years in office, although it rarely turned out as the new president hoped. Over and over again, he tried to compromise with Republicans—on the stimulus, on health care reform, and on deficit reduction—only to have Republicans walk away. (My colleague Noam Scheiber's book, The Escape Artists, has plenty more on that, if you haven't read it already.)

I thought about that 2004 speech twice this week, first when Obama criticized the Supreme Court and later when he criticized the proposed budget of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. The swipe at the Court, during a press conference, was mild. The attack on Ryan’s budget, which presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has embraced, was not. Particularly with the comments about the Ryan budget, delivered as a speech to a convention of newspaper editors, it was if Obama had given up on the idea of political comity. Maybe the citizens of Red America and Blue America still have a lot in common, he seemed to be saying, but the officials they are electing do not.

If that’s what Obama now believes, I think he is correct. Postwar America enjoyed a broad consensus about the role of government and expanse of the welfare state. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans—they pulled in different directions, with the left hoping to expand the state, the right looking to shrink it. But the idea of eliminating vast swaths of the federal government and gutting entitlements beyond recognition was simply not an element of respectable political conversation.

Still, some conservatives were working to undermine this consensus all along—intellectually and, when they had power, politically. Now these efforts have come to define the mainstream position of the Republican Party and threaten, credibly, to change public policy.

We saw that last week, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act. Nobody knows how the Court will rule and many experts believe, still, the most likely outcome is a validation of the law. But the majority of five conservative justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, seemed extremely sympathetic to the law's challengers—just over their claims that the law’s individual mandate intruded upon liberty but also over their claims that the entire structure of Medicaid amounted to unconstitutional coercion of the states.

It’s conceivable that the Court could throw out the entire law. Quite apart from yanking insurance from 30 million people now in line to get it, such a ruling could establish legal grounds for challenging the existing Medicaid program—on which 58 million Americans, including a quarter of all children and millions of elderly nursing home residents, rely.

Such a ruling is among the least likely ways the justices will rule. But the idea of ending Medicaid as we know it has a lot of currency across the street, in the Capitol Building, as Ryan made clear with his most recent budget proposal.

The terms of the Ryan budget are no less startling because, by now, they have started to become familiar. The budget calls for dramatically reducing what the federal governments spends on Medicaid, then turning it over to the states. According to a joint analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Urban Institute, between 14 million and 27 million people would lose health insurance as a result. (This doesn’t include 17 million who, by that estimate, would lose Medicaid via repeal of the Affordable Care Act.) At the same time, it would reduce discretionary spending so radically that according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “most of the federal government aside from Social Security, health care, and defense would cease to exist” by 2050.

The budget would also transform Medicare into a voucher program, eliminating the program’s present guarantee of benefits. The funding cut isn’t as dramatic as the one in the last Ryan budget. But if Republicans got their way and realized that eliminating the federal government meant, among other things, eliminating the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation, Medicare would likely emerge as a candidate for deeper cuts. The cuts would be necessary, in part, because the Republicans remain committed to reducing taxes on the wealthiest Americans—and to the proposition, contrary to available evidence, that such cuts will strengthen the economy.

The chances of a Republican Congress passing, and a Republican president signing, such draconian plans may seem far-fetched. But plenty of people thought the same thing about a crazy libertarian critique of health insurance mandates—an idea that conservative intellectuals developed and that elected Republican officials championed. Romney's praise for the budget may not be heartfelt, but having promised the right wing he'd take it up he'd have little option but to do so. Besides, Republicans control one house of Congress right now. That house approved a mostly similar budget just one year ago. Who's to say they won't do it again?

Someday the political consensus may return. Even now, Red and Blue America still have much in common, starting with a reliance on Medicare, Medicaid, and all the other programs Ryan, Romney, and the Roberts Court eye skeptically. But in the face of this assault on government, a pincer movement by Republican judges and Republican officials, Obama has a duty to respond in kind.

Update: I originally wrote that the justices listened "intently" to the challengers' arguments but, of course, I would hope they always listen intently. My point was that they seemed very sympathetic to the arguments, although, again, it's impossible to know what they are really thinking.

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