Going into last night's climactic debate, President Bush switched his line of attack against John Kerry. Gone from Bush's stump speech was the charge that Kerry is a flip-flopper. Now he's a liberal -- and not just any liberal, but the most liberal senator of them all.
This shift was prompted by a chorus of conservative consiglieri -- most prominently Newt Gingrich. The Newtster, you'll recall, is the master strategist who forced the government to shut down during the 1995 Christmas season to dramatize Bill Clinton's commitment to liberalism. Gingrich's ploy probably contributed more to Clinton's reelection the following year than anything Clinton himself did.
Now Gingrich is back, counseling Karl Rove that the liberal label is even more damaging to Kerry than that of a guy in strange and costly swim trunks going whichever way the wind blows. There's just one problem with this new line of attack: John Kerry may be the most die-hard of liberals or a charter member of the Flip-Flop Hall of Fame -- but he can't be both.
Die-hard liberals don't flip-flop. Paul Wellstone was steadfast in his opposition to Bush's rush to war in Iraq (actually, to both Bushes' wars in Iraq); Ted Kennedy has fought to expand governmental assistance to the poor for more than 40 years; Ernest Gruening remained opposed to all manner of policies he saw as American imperialism; Charles Sumner was an abolitionist through and through.
Kerry, by contrast, has a record that might be described as consistently Clintonian. Unlike Ted Kennedy, he supported both welfare reform and the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget act. He's been a free-trader, but, like most mainstream Democrats, he's moved to questioning the benefits of free trade in response to the decimation of American manufacturing. (Unlike Bush, Kerry doesn't believe that presidential inflexibility is more important than the continued existence of a middle class in Ohio.) In fact, even as the allegations of flip-flopism were a time-honored Bush strategy, which Poppy had directed against Clinton and Junior had directed against Al Gore, the depiction of Kerry as an ultra-liberal bears no resemblance to reality either. But, then, the Bush campaign and presidency have never given reality much due.
Accordingly, last night Bush assailed Kerry for promoting a big-government, "Hillary-care" version of national health insurance -- limiting patient choice, creating massive bureaucracies and shaking the foundations of American individualism. The problem with this depiction is not only that it's utterly untrue but also that it's been so slow in coming.
John Kerry first unveiled his health care plan in all its details in a speech in Des Moines on May 16, 2003 -- 17 months ago.
Sixteen months then followed in which Republican criticism of the plan was occasional at most and desultory at best. Only now, with a debate on domestic affairs looming and with the polls plainly showing that the American public holds Bush's record on health care in low regard, has the president belatedly discovered that the Kerry plan threatens our very way of life.
In fact, Kerry's plan, if enacted, would be notable for vastly reducing the number of uninsured and for lowering insurance premiums without creating any new governmental programs at all. It expands coverage by increasing the scope of Medicaid and programs for children -- creating choice by simply enabling patients to visit doctors, which, outside of hospital emergency rooms, they currently cannot do. It reduces premiums by relieving employers who provide their workers with health insurance of the cost of insuring catastrophic illnesses, which the government would pick up. As well, Kerry would end Bush's prohibition of the reimportation of American-made drugs from Canada, and try to persuade Congress to repeal Bush's ban on government negotiations with drug companies to bring down the cost of prescriptions for Medicare patients.
Indeed, if either candidate has a Big-Government-Threatens-You plan, it's Bush. Using the power of the federal government to block Americans from obtaining safe and affordable drugs from Canada (because to do so would lower the profit margins of drug companies that are a mainstay of Republican campaign finances) sounds like a horror story out of Ayn Rand, or the Orwell of "1984." For that matter, Kerry and John Edwards have long supported a patients' bill of rights in dealing with HMOs (the most Kafkaesque bureaucracies on the American scene), but the Republicans have blocked all efforts to enact one.
But in the day-is-night, black-is-white world of the embattled Bush presidency, and the increasingly desperate Bush campaign, it's Kerry who threatens to transform American medicine into doctors' and patients' soviets. In fact -- as Kerry made clear last night -- what he threatens is the Bush presidency, which has looked on with (at best) indifference as drugs and health insurance have increasingly moved beyond the reach of middle-class Americans.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect. A version of this column first appeared in the Washington Post.