Why I like Obamacare [the Spiritual Masters Series]

When the heart is right
“For” and “against” are forgotten.

— Chuang Tzu (from Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu)

I like Obamacare’s medicine and policy; let’s get that out of the way. I liked it in 1993, and I like it now. But what I like best is the political process.

We have listened to one another. We have given in to one another. We can still compromise, we can still solve big problems. But time has taken the place of reason. Our deepest failing – our short collective attention span – has become our highest virtue.

We Americans are a forgetful people. We have forgotten that Obamacare is essentially the Chafee bill co-sponsored – co-sponsored! – by nineteen Republican U.S. Senators. The Chafee bill became the Republican rallying cry, the chief alternative to Hillarycare.

The Chafee bill contained that infamous Republican innovation, the individual mandate. It contained Obamacare’s state-based exchanges, its ban on denials for preexisting conditions, its subsidies for low-income people to buy insurance policies. It contained Obamacare’s expansion of the private insurance industry, its allowance for individual state innovation, its efficiency requirements, its reduction in growth of health care costs, and its expansion of Americans covered to around 94%. Even though the impartial Congressional Budget Office never did the analysis, the Chafee bill probably would have reduced the deficit in real dollars almost as much as Obamacare will. (Here’s a chart summarizing a comparison of the Chafee bill and Obamacare.)

I like how Democrats can now say, “Ha ha! You Republicans thought you lost when Obamacare was passed and upheld, but you really won! You got exactly what you wanted almost two decades ago, including your precious individual mandate that we hated, and the public voted us out of office in 2010 instead of you! Nyeh!”

I like how one can fall asleep a Republican in 1993 and wake up, Orlando-like, in 2010 a Democrat without modifying a single view. And how one can argue passionately as a Republican one decade and passionately as a Democrat the next while making the same points, even using the same words. In the alternative, I like how one can remain true to an inconstant party, ignoring the lipstick, the nights out of town, even the recently discovered love letters. We are virtuous consumers of political rhetoric: we remain loyal to a brand even when the brand itself is sold to its competitor. Time, aided by a certain peer pressure, makes it the most natural thing in the world to argue for more freedom as a teen and more responsibility from our teens, all the while hearing faint echoes of one’s future or former self. We have raised a child who (the ode reminds us) is father of the man.

Or perhaps, in our forgetfulness, we ourselves have become as children. We said “uh-huh” to our sister’s “nuh-uh” for twenty years, but when she somewhere changed her “nuh-uh” to “uh-huh” we didn’t find an end of the matter but saw the greater wisdom in shifting our own “uh-huh” to “nuh-uh.” Of such is the kingdom of God!

But our spiritual progress moves beyond mere childishness. If I can rejoice that Obamacare was defeated and, almost twenty years later, that it was enacted, or if I can likewise mourn both events, then I can know what others know. I am Chuang Tzu; I have answered my friend and rival Hui Tzu:

Hui replied:
“Since you are not a fish
How do you know
What makes fishes happy?”

Chuang said:
“Since you are not I
How can you possibly know
That I do not know
What make fishes happy?”

(Id. at 97.) And who knows, after supporting and then opposing Obamacare, or after opposing and then supporting Obamacare, if we cannot now be friends and rivals ourselves? Who knows if you cannot become my shadow self that I will acknowledge and even befriend during my Night of Political Sense, or I yours?

So our vociferous, deceitful health-care debate has become a Zen-like mask for our collective, hard-won humility. We’ve become the Russian Orthodox’s apostolic fools or Chaung Tzu’s spiritual ideal, the toothless old man:

His mind is dead
As dead ashes:
His knowledge is solid,
His wisdom true! (Id. at 121 – 122)

We forget ourselves. We are born again, birth being (that ode again) “a sleep and a forgetting.” Through a century of debating health care, we have passed through the night of sense and the dark night of the soul. Late this coming January, we may yet repeal Obamacare and all of the outward progress it represents, but it matters little. It’s about the journey, and the journey has made us spiritual masters.