Political parties come to embody causes. For the past 90 years or so, the Republican Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of personal freedom and economic dynamism. For a similar period, the Democratic Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of fairness and family security.
If you grew up, as I did, with a Hubert Humphrey poster on your wall and a tradition of Democratic Party activism in your family, you recognize the Democratic DNA in the content of the health care bill and in the way it was passed. There was the inevitable fractiousness, the neuroticism, the petty logrolling, but also the basic concern for the vulnerable and the high idealism. And there was the faith in the grand liberal project.
Democrats protected the unemployed starting with the New Deal, then the old, then the poor. Now, thanks to health care reform, millions of working families will go to bed at night knowing that they are not an illness away from financial ruin.
For apostates like me, watching this bill go through the meat grinder was like watching an old family reunion. One glimpse and you got the whole panoply of what you loved and found annoying.
Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi were fit to play the leading roles. They both embody the two great wings of the party, the high-minded aspirations of the educated class and the machine-like toughness of the party apparatus. Obama and Pelosi both possess the political tenaciousness that you only get if you live for government and believe ruthlessly in its possibilities.
Yet I confess, watching all this, I feel again why I'm no longer spiritually attached to the Democratic Party. The essence of America is energy — the vibrancy of the market, the mobility of the people and the disruptive creativity of the entrepreneurs. This vibrancy grew up accidentally, out of a cocktail of religious fervor and material abundance, but it was nurtured by choice. It was nurtured by our founders, who created national capital markets to disrupt the ossifying grip of the agricultural landholders. It was nurtured by 19th-century Republicans who built the railroads and the land-grant colleges to weave free markets across great distances.
Today, America's vigor is challenged on two fronts. First, the country is becoming geriatric. Other nations spend 10 percent or so of their GDP on health care. We spend 17 percent and are predicted to soon spend 20 and then 25 percent. This legislation was supposed to end that asphyxiating growth; it will not.
With the word "security" engraved on its heart, the Democratic Party is just not structured to cut spending that would enhance health and safety. The party nurtures; it does not say, "No more."
The second biggest threat to America's vibrancy is the exploding federal debt. Again, Democrats can utter the words of fiscal restraint, but they don't feel the passion. This bill is full of gimmicks designed to get a good score from the Congressional Budget Office but not to really balance the budget.
Nobody knows how this bill will work out. It is an undertaking exponentially more complex than the Iraq war, for example. But to me, it feels like the end of something, not the beginning of something. It feels like the noble completion of the great liberal project to build a comprehensive welfare system.
The task ahead is to save this country from stagnation and fiscal ruin. We will have to raise a consumption tax. We will have to preserve benefits for the poor and cut them for the middle and upper classes. We will have to invest more in innovation and human capital.
The Democratic Party, as it revealed of itself over the past year, does not seem to be up to that coming challenge (neither is the Republican Party). This country is in the position of a free-spending family careening toward bankruptcy that at the last moment announced that it was giving a gigantic new gift to charity. You admire the act of generosity, but you wish they had a sold a few of the Mercedes to pay for it.
THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE