A Pyrrhic Victory


Bells rang out across the land.   The people, freed from centuries of oppression by a feudal system of health care, rushed into village streets, banging drums and shaking timbrels.  Thirty- two million people, in one voice, wept with gratitude as their redemptive leader read them the new order.  No longer would they be at the mercy of avaricious insurance companies.  No longer would anyone reject them for a prior medical condition or their age;  no longer would a citizen’s income dictate whether or not he or she could see a doctor.

That certainly is the reaction for which Barack Obama is longing as he sets his pen to the most important change to national health care since Lyndon Johnson’s landmark Medicare legislation 45 years ago.

There are plenty of people around the world who are declaring that its about time.  After all, Germany had introduced government sanctioned  sickness and accident insurance  as long ago as 1883 when Otto von Bismarck was Chancellor and most European countries have enjoyed some variety of nationalized health for at least 60 years.

Yet, there were always good reasons the United States did not have a universal health care system.  For all their claims of success, the Europeans, Canadians and other Western nations’ systems have operated as notorious drains on their treasuries, reducing the overall quality of care and consigning many aged, terminally ill individuals to wait lists that sometimes extend years.

But more important than this is the notion that a Government managed health care system vitiated against the country’s bedrock belief in free enterprise and the efficacy of market mechanisms in regulating the application of a service vital service to the public.  Health care, for generations of Americans, was never regarded so much as a  right, as much as it was a privilege to which one worked hard to obtain – and then maintain.

Yesterday, that changed.  Health care has now become an entitlement in the United States of America which will almost certainly bring with it most of the other ills that have attached to similar systems. Who will pay for it in an era when government is already heaving under a merciless burden of debt, is still anyone’s guess.

For all the euphoria, it is not certain that anyone has a comprehensive understanding  of what is in this health bill.  From its earlier incarnations, pages  been ripped out, amendments slapped on to politically sensitive sections, whole chapters eviscerated – it has begun to resemble one of those study guides high school students carry into their open book exams with sections pasted in from assigned texts, yellow post-its dangling from its edges and hundreds of dog-eared pages marking important areas of concentration.     It may take many months for the final version to be published and even then there is no certainty that anyone willl be able to get a handle on its Byzantine complexity. Obamacare enters history as a modern day version of the Rosetta Stone, to be interpreted and reinterpreted by our judges and legislators for many generations into the future.

What then of the political maneuvering to took to get this bird in the air?   The Obama flight plan, which only two months ago, damaged by incessant flak with its engines on fire and billowing smoke, was in a tailspin, its future grim.  It now appears now to have pulled out of it of its death dive, albeit with its  fuselage singed and rattling away at low altitude.

But that might not be for long.  The extra cargo this administration has taken on in passing the legislation, with pet projects of representatives now demanding be fed, will be a heavy burden that it will only unload at great expense to its future.

And at least one thing is for certain.  Gone is any pretense of Barack Obama as this century’s first post-partisan president, having repudiated his election night promise that he would be the president of   “all Americans”.   We should not forget the other historical first achieved last night – the health care bill  legislation passed the House with not even one Republican vote.   Never in this country’s history has so important a piece of legislation failed to win any bi-partisan support.

The effect of this reality may be seismic.  Popular opinion in the country may be stirred in outrage, leading to a devastating rout for Democrats at the polls in only eight months time.  In that event, Obama’s great victory will have wilted into a tragic mistake that might have been avoided with the application of restraint and moderation.

The Obama  administration should therefore not forget  Plutarch’s retelling to Dionysis of the Pyrrhic Wars:

“The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders and there were no others there to make recruits.  On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.“.

The Obamaites would do well to heed Pyrrhus’ historical lesson.

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