Health Care: Do or Die

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) recently compared Democrats' efforts to pass health care reform with the Kamikaze attacks of World War II. Last July, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) compared the same effort to the Battle of Waterloo. What lies behind this martial imagery? And what does this positioning tell us about today's politics?

Over 700 years ago, Japan stood vulnerable to invasion by China, then ruled from Mongolia. The Chinese army and fleet were far superior to Japan's military of that day, and both sides believed that China would quickly subjugate Japan once they got troops there. Japan was saved by massive typhoons in 1274 and 1283, which sank the Chinese fleet and derailed the invasion. Japan named the typhoons kamikaze, meaning "divine wind."

In late 1944, Japan faced certain defeat in World War II. The US and our allies destroyed Japan's fleet, air force, and industrial capability. Japan, seeing no other available tactic, sent novice pilots on suicide missions. Approximately 2,800 Kamikaze attackers sank 34 Navy ships, damaged 368 others, killed 4,900 sailors, and wounded over 4,800. Despite radar, airborne interception, and massive anti-aircraft barrages, a distressing 14% of Kamikazes survived to score a hit on a ship; nearly 8.5% of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank.

Sen. Alexander would have us believe that in this analogy, Senate and House Democrats are the Kamikaze pilots, making the opponents of health care reform the Navy, on the verge of total victory. Democrats might argue that the analogy works better in reverse, and they might be more accurate. Democrats stand poised as of this writing to get the last few matters settled to pass health care reform. The GOP is doing everything left in its power to stop them, and if not to stop them, to hurt them in the midterm elections.

The Battle of Waterloo, fought near a town in present-day Belgium on June 18, 1815, saw the final defeat of Napoleon in a decisive victory by forced led by the Duke of Wellington. Waterloo was not just the end of Napoleon's hundred-day campaign to restore his power. It was the end of Napoleon as a force in French and world affairs. It is this kind of decisive and final end that Senator DeMint has in mind for President Obama.

But there is another side to the Battle of Waterloo, the side of the victor. Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, was not just the commanding general for the British. He was, with other members of his family, leader of a political party. The Wellesley party clung precariously to power during the Napoleonic Wars, its fortunes rising and falling with news from battlefields around Europe. With Waterloo, the Wellesley party became a dominant force in British politics for a generation. They shaped the attitudes and policies of the British Empire that dominated the world economy and world affairs for the next century.

Both the images of the Kamikaze and Waterloo suggest all-out battles for decisive results that shape events for decades. Battles worth committing every resource, running every risk, using every tactic -- even ones that normally would be abhorrent. The question is, why would the GOP and the conservative movement make this analogy?

The visceral animus of Republican and conservative opposition to health care reform cannot be explained by stands on issues. There are numerous data points for this view, but just one will do: Massachusetts enacted a very similar program under Republican Governor Mitt Romney.

Rather, this is about power: political, economic, and social. Health care is the most complex and most difficult issue on the Obama agenda. If Obama wins, it will be easier to win the next issues: jobs, cap-and-trade, bank reform. In the longer term, it could presage the primacy of the interests of the younger, better educated, more diverse, more urban electorate that voted for Obama over the older, whiter, more rural electorate that kept conservatives and Republicans in power for most of the last forty years.

To some of these voters, this truly would be the end of America as they know it, very literally. This demographic would no longer control the political and social outcomes. They would not even set the agenda. This would be a staggering, humiliating loss of influence. Hence the fear, the anger, and the white-hot rhetoric.

To other voters, health care reform would just be another case of having government involved in matters of wide public interest. The US had public schools since 1790, public water systems since 1808, public highways since 1842, public national parks since 1905, public retirement systems since 1937, and public health insurance since 1965. During all that time, capitalism continued to flourish, aided by education and infrastructure. These voters see the health care debate in evolutionary terms, not the dire terms of the opposition.

Yes, the upcoming vote on health care reform may be Obama's Waterloo. But will he come out of it a defeated Napoleon? Or a victorious Wellesley? A spent force awaiting the dust bin of history? Or the defining leader for a generation?

It's time to play for all the marbles.