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The Making - and Unmaking - of History

The Making - and Unmaking - of History

By Jeremy Lott - March 26, 2010

Nearly everybody agrees, President Barack Obama "made history" by ushering healthcare reform into law. In the New Republic, Jonathan Chait offered the admittedly "ludicrously premature opinion" that "Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import." Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne called it a "moment of history, a culmination of the legacies of Truman and Franklin Roosevelt."

A news analysis in the New York Times explained that Obama "will go down in history as one of the handful of presidents who found a way to reshape the nation's social welfare system," though admitted that it could conceivably cost Democrats control of Congress. Joshua Green didn't dispute that judgment in the Atlantic, adding only that "history" will remember Madame Speaker Nancy Pelosi kindly as well.

Great but, what the devil does that mean? History is a word that contains galaxies. History can mean an account of things past, sometimes of dubious veracity. The very cynical Devil's Dictionary defines it as "an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools" (and historians as "broad-gauge gossips").

Or history can mean altogether different things having to do with the future. The conservative magazine National Review announced its intention to "stand athwart history yelling stop" in the very first issue - a statement that has been widely misunderstood. The editors were not announcing their intention to stop recording the past, or turn back the clock, or freeze in place the status quo. The Soviets claimed that "history" or "historical forces" were on their side. American anti-Communists were simply disputing the claim. "End the end, we will bury him," said William F. Buckley Jr. of Nikita Khrushchev when the Soviet leader was visiting America.

The point here is not to call Barack Obama a Communist but to show the absurd uses - the malevolent causes - that the word "history" can be put to by ideologues. Granted, by saying that Obama "made history" we can simply mean that he managed to get difficult legislation through Congress against overwhelming odds and that he managed to succeed where past Democratic presidents have failed. If the Guinness Book of World Records recognized "passing difficult legislation" as a category, he'd probably belong there. I'd even nominate him for such a prize.

Yet that's not really the point of the many liberals praising Obama's "historic achievement" right now. Rather, they are trying to render this achievement beyond mere politics and thus beyond challenge. They are asserting without really arguing that this is an irreversible step in America's pre-determined Progress from a rowdy frontier democracy to a more civilized European style nation. They are saying that whatever else our president does or does not accomplish, this will stand, because it cannot fall.

Maybe, maybe not, but to pull Obama's healthcare reform into the broader sweep of history seems premature. It first has to survive multiple challenges in the Supreme Court, a majority of whose justices the president recently insulted. Then it has to survive the wrath of American voters, a clear majority of whom opposed the legislation. Obama's party will head into the election having cast a deeply unpopular vote in an awful economy. There are already early indicators that those voters' insurance premiums will be skyrocketing, and they aren't likely to be reassured by talk of an "historic" achievement.

If the Democrats lose their majorities in one or both chambers of Congress this November, if they lose the presidency in 2012, if Obamacare is struck down by the courts, or repealed, or radically altered, then Obama will indeed have made history. However it will not be the kind of history that Chait, Dionne, the New York Times and other left wing cheerleaders have in mind.

Jeremy Lott is an editor for RealClearPolitics and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

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