Overwhelmingly supportive of President Barack Obama's health-care reform effort, the mainstream media has portrayed Republican Senators' predictions that they and their House colleagues will be reluctant to support other administration proposals as a combination of sour grapes and partisan zeal. Surely, both elements have contributed to Republican indignation toward the substance and particularly the process that turned the health-care bill into law. Yet far more important is the fact that principled opposition to the Obama administration is not only inevitable but appropriate for congressional Republicans. It is inevitable because the Republican base would expect nothing less from its representatives in Congress, and because raw emotions among practically all Republicans are so strong that business as usual is not an option. More importantly, however, it is appropriate because what Obama and his congressional Democratic allies have done represents a genuine danger to the Republic.
In his farewell address, President George Washington warned of a "real despotism" when one branch of the government encroaches on the prerogatives of another, bringing "change by usurpation." How else can one describe the White House essentially using Democratic congressional leaders to impose what is perhaps the most far-reaching social reform since the New Deal through reconciliation, a process designed to address differences in budgets approved by the Senate and the House? In a democracy, process is no less important than result, and the Democrats' cynical and manipulative approach after it became clear (following Senator Brown's remarkable win in Massachusetts) that normal Senate procedures would not succeed reveals a profound disregard for the principles and spirit of good democratic governance. Many independents sense this and are increasingly uncomfortable with one-party rule.
Obama's obsession with health-care reform clearly transcends cost-cutting and improved services. For the president, health-care reform is an integral part of a moral crusade for profound income redistribution that includes a relentless assault on the upper-middle class-those whom the president defines as individual Americans making more than $200,000 a year or families earning over $250,000 a year.
Statistically, most people in this category have incomes that are a little over $250,000 per year-not a lot over-and are not "wealthy," especially if they are in families living in cities on the East or West Coasts. President Obama's two daughters are enrolled at Sidwell Friends School, where annual tuition is about $31,000. It is unlikely that he would be able to send them there on an average yearly income of $250,000-out of which he would probably see only $150,000 after taxes-particularly if he would like to have a decent house in Washington (at his expense, not the taxpayers'), to go on family vacations and to enjoy other attributes of an upper-middle class lifestyle.
Still, at times there may be no alternatives to belt-tightening and sacrifice. Faced with a skyrocketing budget deficit and out-of-control growth in entitlement spending, fiscal responsibility may dictate tax increases for those better off and entitlement cuts. But that is not what President Obama is talking about: he is increasing taxes and spending. Thus Obama is not asking the upper-middle class to make an essential sacrifice; rather, he is trying to force those whom he calls wealthy to give up some of their earnings not because he considers it necessary, but because he believes it is self-evidently just. "I think when you spread the wealth around," he said as a candidate, "it's good for everybody."
Revealingly, instead of focusing on the need for new taxes while showing empathy for those affected, President Obama and his associates have instead argued that tax increases will affect only a small group of Americans. First, the group may not be quite so small. According to analysis by a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, some 25 percent of those earning less than $200,000 will see a tax increase. Second, according to the Census Bureau, 4.2 percent of American households have an income upwards of $200,000 per year. Even if only 4-5 percent of Americans would pay additional taxes, as the president and his supporters argue, these families represent millions of Americans who deserve equal consideration. Would the president treat any other minority group in this fashion if the distinction were ethnic, religious or social rather than class-based? Such an attitude toward successful, but overwhelmingly honest, hardworking and productive citizens is basically un-American and deserves condemnation on moral grounds. For an African American former community organizer, this cavalier stance toward minority rights is particularly remarkable.
Last but not least, by spending so much political capital on health care reform, Obama has sharply limited his ability to take necessary but domestically controversial steps required by U.S. national security. Look at his pathetic attempt to force Israel to freeze its settlements. The tough rebuff from Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu's government that Obama had to accept-angry rhetoric notwithstanding-was demeaning to America's reputation in the Middle East, in the Muslim world, and beyond. The United States is involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is far from concluding a global fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. For the Commander in Chief to put all his chips into domestic social engineering at such a time is nothing short of an abrogation of responsibility.
And President Obama has made it abundantly clear that health-care reform is the beginning rather than the end of his effort to reshape America. In the absence of strong resistance, the president could impose further "change by usurpation" on the United States. Republicans should not attempt to shut down the government as Newt Gingrich and his cohorts did in the 1990s. Nor should they refuse to cooperate with administration initiatives that are important for the security and prosperity of the nation. But Republicans cannot and should not acquiesce in Obama's usurpation of power and allow him to appear victorious while taking the country on the wrong course. With ingenuity, common sense, and good political instincts, the Republicans should be able to develop the right formula for continuing the nation's business while resolutely opposing the president's definition of "change."
Dimitri K. Simes is the president of the Nixon Center.
PS: Good news: Fidel Castro has endorsed Obama's health-reform plan, describing it as a "miracle."