It is hard to read Remedy and Reaction, Paul Starr’s remarkable chronicle of the hundred-year effort to legislate universal health insurance in the United States, without recalling Robert Gibbs’s tortured quip that Democrats who’ve denounced the Obama White House for having knuckled under to Republican principles or intimidation “ought to be drug-tested.” Nobody with a sense of history—that is, nobody who reads Starr’s book—could doubt how sensible and brave was the president’s effort to drive the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 through Congress. Nobody with a feel for the present moment should doubt how imminent is the threat to the act, how urgent it is for progressive Democrats to rally around Obama—and without all the condescending qualifications that “independents,” who flock away from allegedly weak or incompetent leaders, interpret as contempt.
Starr, who teaches at Princeton and, with Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, founded The American Prospect, has written 300-plus pages of tightly woven policy description, narrative and polemic; but one needn’t be a wonk to benefit from the tutorial or detect an occasional sigh between the lines. Literary scholars speak of a pathetic fallacy, the idea that inanimate objects have intentions and feelings. Starr makes clear that various political commentators have been susceptible to a somewhat different fallacy, pathetic in its own way, that America’s desires can be fathomed through polling and that the president must somehow be at fault if a desire is not fulfilled, as though flawed legislative institutions, entrenched political forces, conflicting popular incentives, regional rivalries and sheer corruption do not shape political outcomes.
Starr learned his lessons the hard way. He closely advised the Clintons on health strategy in the early 1990s (he still knows and has debriefed key Congressional staffers). The centerpiece of Remedy and Reaction is a long section, full of illuminating asides, on the frustration of the Clintons’ plans. Starr shows that, even as Bill Clinton submitted his bill to Congress, some 70 percent of voters subscribed to the principles embodied in the legislation he proposed. Yet the bill didn’t come close to being enacted. True, Clinton was losing altitude by then, but to suppose his failure was largely a matter of leadership—you know, that he didn’t use his bully pulpit forcefully enough, the sort of gripe heard relentlessly on MSNBC, the Huffington Post and Daily Kos about Obama and the “public option”—is to suppose that willows really weep.
Obama’s actions were cannier than Clinton’s, but they also amounted to a profile in courage. When Obama came into office, Starr explains, only 11 percent of Americans thought reform would have a “negative personal impact,” but by August 2009 this segment of the population was trending to 31 percent. Both Rahm Emanuel and Joe Biden were urging retreat. Starr writes, “Obama not only resolved to go ahead; in September and again in the new year, the president took charge of the effort to steady the health-care initiative and prevent it from careening off the tracks.” Nor was the final bill anything less than what might reasonably have been expected, filling as it did the negative space left by four generations of government programs and serial compromises. Starting with clean sheets of paper was never realistic when one-sixth of the economy was at stake.