Opinion

Republicans’ Bridge On The River Obamacare

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official

Republican attempts to bridge Obamacare strikingly resembles The Bridge on the River Kwai.  At their essence, both involve personal struggles eclipsing larger ones.  For Republicans, the difficulties are unquestioned, but greatest is one of perspective by many aspiring leaders.  Having lost perspective, they endanger the larger endeavor.  Until they regain it, bridging Obamacare appears insurmountable.

Shot in 1957, The Bridge on the River Kwai tells the fictional story of British WWII POWs forced by Japanese captors to build a bridge under inhumane conditions.  The project is faring poorly, and the POWs worse, until British Colonel Nicholson leads in the next lot of unfortunates.

Rather than limping in a beaten ragtag rabble, Nicholson marches in his command.  For the colonel the war is not over.  He intends his men to remain soldiers.  Nicholson’s war becomes the bridge.

Nicholson immerses himself in the bridge’s challenges, solving each in turn.  In the process, he effectively takes the bridge’s building from the Japanese.  He justifies his effort as aiding his men’s morale.  But in conquering the bridge, he loses his perspective of the larger struggle – in which his bridge will aid his enemy.

When British commandos arrive to blow up the now vital link, Nicholson unwittingly reveals their plan to the Japanese.  Incredulous, the commandos must turn on their comrade in hopes of salvaging their mission.

Republicans are stuck on Obamacare.  The House, after prolonged difficulty, barely managed their end.  Senate Republicans have yet to do so.  Assuming they do, it is anyone’s guess how the two sides will join together.

Republicans’ work is undoubtedly hard.  Obamacare was abysmally designed, executed, and administered – a promise not a plan, let alone a program.  In fixing it, details matter.  They become progressively more difficult – the solving of one seemingly unraveling two others.  At times, the effort seems like building a bridge in the air.

Conditions are no easier.  The media are relentless apologists for the failing Obamacare, which survives only on massive subsidies and increasing costs.  There are also confounding official estimates that only gauge efforts against the fairy tale that Obamacare will someday succeed – all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

There is a unified opposition eager to exploit Republicans’ mistakes, happy to have the spotlight on those struggles rather than Obamacare’s failures.  And yes, there have been Republican leadership errors as well.

Republicans have been captured by Obamacare.  Rather than just the one battle it should be, it has seemingly become their war.

Yet this is where Republicans are now.  And where they are, their biggest problem is not details, conditions, opposition, or their own mistakes.  Republicans’ biggest problem is that their ranks are rife with Colonel Nicholsons.

Republicans’ have a proliferation of would-be leaders who have lost their perspective of the bigger picture.  Each Nicholson would be the leader.  Each has a justification.  Each has a plan.  Each can solve the details.  Each insists his plan is the only one.  But what all do not have is a perspective of what their efforts are doing to the larger cause.

Republicans must get over Obamacare.  They must do so with a minimal of losses – time being the most obvious.  There are no perfect solutions, because they are trying to fix Obama’s mistake in the morass that is the U.S. healthcare system.  It is the same reason Obamacare is such an abject failure, like the collapsing Japanese bridge before Nicholson went to work.

Republicans’ Obamacare struggle and The Bridge on the River Kwai are not a perfect analogy by any means.  Republicans will not have to turn and then blow up their bridge.  They simply need to be done with it and cross it.

But just because the analogy is not perfect, does not make it less apt in its most essential elements.  The proliferation of Nicholsons exists.  The loss of perspective is also there.  So too, the shared hubris that their war is the only war.  And finally, that these personal wars endanger the larger struggle.

It is unclear how close Republicans’ are to bridging Obamacare.  What is clear is that the would-be Nicholsons have not yet reached their namesake’s epiphany.  Not until the end does Nicholson realize his error: “What have I done?”

Only as Nicholson collapses does he regain his perspective and bring his war back to the real one.  A British POW watching the climax unfold concludes the movie saying “Madness, madness.”   Watching with increasing exasperation, yet with no climax in sight, today’s witnesses to Republicans’ attempted bridge over Obamacare are left with the same feeling: Madness.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000)