As we approach the birthday of our young nation, it is fitting to remind ourselves how much shorter its lifespan could have been. When the great conflagration of the Civil War finally erupted, the Constitution crafted in 1787 failed to contain the internal stresses caused by the genetic defect of tolerating the South’s “peculiar institution.” Along the path to war, one of the most salient mileposts was the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, itself a multi-year affair with deep historical roots in earlier national dramas. Led by the state of South Carolina, which blamed federal tariffs on imports for its economic woes, the nullifiers contended that the Constitution was a compact between the states which left each state ultimately at liberty to decide for itself whether it would allow federal laws to apply within its own borders. Beaten back by the resilience of Andrew Jackson and the intellectual force of Daniel Webster in the Senate, the nullifiers eventually accepted a compromise tariff and placed their arguments back on the shelf until the great questions of slavery, national expansion, and representation of the states in the Federal City coalesced with deadly force. Even after a bloodbath appeared to settle the matter, the states rights doctrine lived on for a century of segregation. And now, 180 years after the Nullification Crisis, new storm clouds are forming over the constitutional landscape. Once again, a southern state is in the van, and the threat of national division has been a long time coming.
Obamacare as the Tariff of Abominations
Within a few days of the Supreme Court’s decision in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, Governor Rick Scott defiantly announced through the favorite media organ of the plutocracy – Fox News – that Florida would neither expand Medicaid nor set up a health insurance exchange as provided for by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Now, it must be quickly stated that the State of Florida is not legally required to do either of these things. The Supreme Court, in a victory for the right that has not been adequately expressed, held that the federal government could not threaten the states with massive funding shortfalls if they failed to expand Medicaid in the manner envisioned by the law. That part of the decision potentially cuts the number of uninsured who could have gained health coverage in half. And while the survival of the individual mandate means that health exchanges must be set up by 2014, the individual states can opt to leave that task to the federal government if they wish. Many governors, including a few Republicans like John Kasich and Terry Branstad, have concluded that, since there is going to be an exchange, it makes far more sense for them to control it. But such logical considerations have no meaning for Rick Scott, whose palpable loathing for the President’s health reform is beginning to mark him out as the Orval Faubus of our time.
For not since the darkest days of the desegregation battle has the United States witnessed the level of state resistance to federal law now being threatened by several, Republican-controlled states. And this is Rick Scott’s moment. This is the battle he was determined to have, after investing millions of dollars of his personal fortune into running for the governorship of a state he doesn’t seem to care too much about. As soon as President Obama announced his plans to tackle the issue that had almost destroyed Bill Clinton, Rick Scott formed Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, and eventually used it as a springboard to Tea Party favor and the governorship. Scott has been scaring gullible voters with lies ever since (see PolitiFact for some recent examples). While the left wing celebrates its tiny victory – and downplays its defeat – we must not lose sight of the larger war being waged.
Scott, Koch, and Plutocracy: The Battle for America
Since Scott made his fortune in the health care industry, it is tempting to dismiss his campaign against health care reform as a simple protection of vested interests. After all, the status quo creates wonderful opportunities for profit, both legal and, as we have touched on before, illegal. The Leesburg Daily Commercial actually did its readers a service this week and ran an article detailing Scott’s income and the ambiguities that swirl around his overall wealth. (Unfortunately, in yet another case of the sloppy typesetting that characterizes the Daily Commercial, they missed out several sentences of the full AP report. A complete version is available here.) His net worth has apparently declined from $218 million to $83 million, yet somehow he has enough investments to “earn” $26 million a year. Most of that income is from a trust, but it is not clear how that trust has invested its funds. His wife has a separate trust, the contents of which are not being disclosed at all. Although one holding in the health sector was sold – for an unknown sum – the extent to which Scott’s fortune remains tied to health care is unclear. Against that, of course, one must weigh the massive “investment” he has made in entering the political thicket – an investment with a rather shaky ROI. There must be more driving Scott than naked self-interest or even the egotistical exercise in resume-padding that appears to motivate Mitt Romney.
After news leaked out of Scott attending a private meeting with other so-called conservatives organized by the Koch brothers at a Colorado retreat, it is fair to ask whether Scott is part of a plutocratic cabal and, if so, exactly what part he has chosen to play. Is he a leader or a follower? He is certainly a kindred spirit. And surely the overarching issue here, the primary reason for these Randian supermen to oppose Obamacare so vehemently, is because they see it as the beginning of a slippery slope toward a society that fails to venerate Social Darwinism to quite the same extent as they do. Never mind that Obamacare is actually a very mild reform, leaving much of the existing, privately controlled superstructure firmly in place and not threatening in any way to duplicate Canada’s single-payer system (effectively Medicare for all) to say nothing of Britain’s much-maligned National Health Service (NHS). In the mind of radical conservatives, once a government program has been established, there is no getting rid of it. (This is why the national debt remains their best friend, for it provides them with a marvelous weapon against previously unassailable programs.)
Thus, with the Koch brothers spending millions of dollars in addition to their existing Super PAC activities on a new advertising blitz against Obamacare, portraying the ACA as a wretched new tax, and the governors of the second- and fourth-most-populous states resisting the will of a democratically elected Congress and President, the plutocrats are asserting themselves in a most unbecoming and obtrusive manner. This could be seen as a sign of weakness, not strength, but it feels more like arrogant, impatient intolerance. The masters of our universe have grown accustomed to owning most of the country and receiving ever-increasing shares of the national income. They could be content with the not-insignificant fact that the Supreme Court drew lines in the sand in two vital areas of constitutional jurisprudence – the Commerce Clause and the Spending Power. NFIB v. Sebelius will prove to be a gold mine for aggressive Republican attorneys general, and their wealthy clients, for years to come. But these victories are not enough for them. Democracy, and the Constitution that underpins it, have become frightfully inconvenient.
Barack Obama’s Jacksonian Challenge
One might almost feel sorry for Barack Obama, were he not such an obvious political shyster, having sacrificed the interests of gullible Democratic constituencies on the altar of ambition. Watching the video of his 2009 health care announcement is particularly painful, for it was as sublime an act of distraction – the quintessence of American oligarchic governance – as George Bush’s obscene response to the terrorist attacks of 2001. Instead of addressing the single most important public policy issue of our time – the desperate need to crush the power of Wall Street – he quite deliberately chose to invest his administration’s political capital in a battle that was always going to yield an outcome that made only marginal real differences while annoying everyone. Much as George W. Bush’s war against Iraq made absolutely no sense as a response to Al Qaeda, Obama’s choice of health care reform, though considerably more grounded in reality, was not what the country needed after a grotesque financial collapse.
But now that his choice of “signature” policy has half-survived, the task will fall to him to make it work in the real world. As the deadline for the new exchanges approaches, how will he respond to the two Ricks – Scott and Perry? (Yes, I am assuming that Obama will still be president then.) The former constitutional law professor, having already defaced much of the document, will need to respond to our would-be nullifiers with the indomitable vigor of Jackson or, more recently, Eisenhower. Obama has had no qualms about using brute force when Muslim civilians are on the receiving end, but it is hard to imagine him federalizing the National Guard as Eisenhower did in Little Rock in 1957. If the war with the plutocracy should become that hot, Obama will have an opportunity to finally (but only partially) redeem himself. Neither Eisenhower nor Jackson needed to worry about this aspect of their legacies.