What does health care have to do with foreign policy?
Not much, one might think. But there was a paragraph in President Obamas speech last night that drew a connection between the two in a way that was at best troubling and at worst demagogic. It appeared in the context of the Presidents attempt to provide his audience with an intuitive grasp of the cost of his plan. His words bear quotation in full:
Now, add it all up and the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over 10 years, less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration.
What is one to make of this passage? It could be read, I suppose, as a good faith effort to let Americans know what they will be asked to pay for, although one is hard-pressed to know whether his implication is that the plan is relatively manageable (after all we have somehow managed to pay for these wars) or massively expensive. But it seems that the real point of selecting these examples to illustrate the point, at least for anyone who has listened to political rhetoric of the last few years, is the moral one. The standard position of those on the Left has been that the expenditures on the wars or on tax cuts for the rich are unconscionable, especially given the pressing social welfare needs for which this money could have been used.
Democrats have employed variants of this rhetorical formula so often that it practically enjoys the status of a political trope, one designed to invoke an automatic response (disgust). How many times, for example, did Barack Obama as candidate use just this kind rhetoric? Here is one instance:
For what folks in this state [West Virginia] have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students. We could be fighting to put the American dream within reach for every American . . . (University of Charleston, March 20, 2008)
All of this still works for Barack Obama, except for one thing. He is President of the United States and he strongly supports the War in Afghanistan, asking soldiers daily to sacrifice their lives for that cause. Less than a month ago he rousingly defended the policy before the Veterans of Foreign Wars not as a war of choice but as a war of necessity. True enough, during the campaign as well, Obama always gave his support to the Afghan war, in contrast to the Iraq War, which was the war of choice. The question now, however, is why he would include Afghanistan inside of a rhetorical appeal that rests on the implicit notion, at least to his own partisans, of the scandal of wasting funds. And why he would do this at the very point when he is calling on Americans to make greater sacrifices for that venture? A President who is a serious war-time President, a position he has embraced for himself, might wish to think twice before evoking sentiments that raise doubts about his own policies.