It's starting to feel like Groundhog Day for the Democrats. Each time they think they've passed a health-care bill, they wake up to find that it's time to start all over again. This time, newly elected Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is the culprit. In a crowning irony, Brown captured Ted Kennedy's sacrosanct seat, foiling the establishment of the very program that Kennedy had devoted his career to creating. Indeed, Kennedy's endorsement of Obama over Hillary Clinton during the primaries in 2008 represented the passing of the torch to a new generation of liberalism. Obama was supposed to tackle new frontiers. Now he's scrambling to keep his party from imploding.
In my view, the results of this special election were a continuation of the revolt against big government that began in 2006 and was directed against the profligate George W. Bush. Bush, more than Obama, discredited the idea of an activist government. He embarked upon costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He established the useless Homeland Security Department. He signed off on the No Child Left Behind school bill. And he vastly expanded drug benefits for the elderly.
With the attempted bombing of a Northwest flight landing in Detroit, Americans saw that the trillions they've spent on national security have been largely wasted. If the federal government can't even protect its citizens, how on earth is it going to run a health-care bureaucracy effectively? Nor is the surge in Afghanistan popular, another legacy of the Bush era.
Now that the economy has crumbled, the ire of voters is even higher. The idea of spending close to a trillion dollars on health care at a moment when Americans can't afford to take their children on vacation is a nonstarter. So is the idea of raising taxes on wealthy Americans to pay for it. Ultimately, the health-care plan crashed because the Senate betrayed Obama-the deal-cutting and rampant egotism of senators such as Ben Nelson, who insisted on carving out an exemption for his state in paying for new benefits, prompted Massachusetts votes to just say no.
Obama would be wiser to focus on job creation and cutting the deficit. The Washington Post reports today that the White House and congressional Democrats are aiming to establish an independent budget commission that would recommend fixes for the tax code and entitlement programs that include Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. It's high time that entitlements are cut. Probably only a Democrat can pull it off.
Meanwhile, Republicans are jubilant over Brown's victory, detecting in it a harbinger of further victories in the midterm elections. Perhaps. But the Democrats have gotten an early warning and won't be overconfident as they head into the fall contests. With volatile independent voters increasingly influential, elections have become much more unpredictable than they were in recent decades.
Obama's big moment will come with the State of the Union Address next week. He needs to reposition his party and himself. If Obama can redirect his presidency, the Brown triumph will merely look like his freshman hazing in retrospect. But if he doesn't, the epitaph of his presidency will become, "No, he couldn't."
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.