If you came of age during the 1990s you could be forgiven for experiencing a case of déjà vu for mistaking the American health care debate with Britney Spears’ post-millennial downfall.
What began with promise, hype, and a new voice taking up residence in the hearts of the American middle class, has quickly devolved into a jaw-dropping series of strange bedfellows, public meltdowns and chaos out there in Harry Reid’s very own Nevada.
When desperation grips a situation, and that situation concerns the U.S. Congress, we Americans start to pay attention. We can’t help it. We enjoy seeing these people swing. They write unreadable, uninteresting, unintelligible, 1,000-page laws that deign to govern our lives: laws they don’t read for lives they don’t live.
We work all day, come home to catch five minutes of solid entertainment courtesy of “The Bachelor: On The Wings of Love,” and there they are again, in our face, interrupting our regularly-scheduled programming with moral lectures and droll platitudes on what’s wrong with America—the country that made each of their stories possible.
Before the television, few things rivaled a good public hanging for sheer entertainment value. These days, nothing quite warms the heart of the American taxpayer like watching a Member of Congress make a concession speech in high-definition.
So, yes, we tune in to their desperate hours with glee. It is why we pay for cable. Washington wastes our time. Any time we catch the scent of political desperation through the television screen, we tune in sporting full lynch-mob apparel.
Scott Brown won Tuesday’s election by campaigning against the very thing Ted Kennedy spent his career championing: health care. Ironic congratulations are in order. Sen.-elect Brown looks to be an agreeable fellow. He speaks English, drives a truck, has a pair of attractive daughters and the courage to say crisply, cleanly, that our Constitution was written to protect U.S. citizens, and that our “tax dollars should go to weapons to defeat terrorists, not lawyers to defend them.”
Excellent. Please, hurry yourself to Washington and don’t make any new friends full of zany ideas along the way.
But his Republican colleagues should not misread this moment. Yes, it was a referendum on Obama—a justly earned setback—but it was equally a referendum on hubris.
Americans are not expressing a preference for Republicans or Democrats so much as they are pleading for humility and quiet competence. The American people have been decimating incumbents with a Byzantine fervor since 2006. These past three elections (New Jersey and Virginia’s gubernatorials and Massachusetts’ special election) weren’t about expressed preferences, they were about the townspeople marching hubris to the gallows. Until our elected officials produce something of greater relevance to Americans than boilerplate musings on a perma-crisis train wreck, the trend will not be broken, and incumbents can expect only further political carnage.
Last Tuesday in Massachusetts was a referendum on the nature of government, a simple statement: When the American people look to their government, they don’t want to be staring at a caustic, patronizing parent—they want a competent and respectful employee. “Pave the roads, protect the country from foreign threats and don’t disrupt our lives with your luxuriant and irrelevant agenda.”
To hear this message and snap the cycle, Republicans will have to work quickly. This year, Congress will pass a bill bearing the phrase “health care.” It may be an umbrella for pet projects and payoffs to Nebraska and Louisiana, but after the pomp of an Oval Office signing ceremony it will be paraded around as the messiah of social equality, and this child will walk. Republicans cannot simply declare it a Frankenstein. Calling children ugly is no way to win elections. Instead, take on the quasi-socialism of employer-derived health care by reaffirming the commitment to transportable health savings accounts. Lure the young out of their benefit-rich cubicle cities in government and into the entrepreneurial endeavors we so desperately need them to undertake for wealth and job creation.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.