The American political class is facing a perfect storm of public contempt.
Congressional Republicans have proved themselves divided and incapable of adopting a coherent strategy, with a significant minority determined to light the way with an auto-da-fe. Meanwhile, an administration that seeks to transform American health care cannot run a website -- a breathtaking gap between ambition and competence. And its responses to failure -- denial, defensiveness and secrecy -- have been as discrediting to Obamacare as any technical breakdown.
At the same time Republicans seem uninterested in governing, Democrats seem incapable of it. It is little wonder that only 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do what's right -- a seven-point drop since January.
This is clearly, as I've argued, bad news for liberalism, which requires a modicum of trust in government in order to operate. Does anyone believe the failed launch of Obamacare has increased the chances for passage of a federal law guaranteeing universal preschool education or further regulating greenhouse gas emissions?
On health care, some liberals are reduced to arguing that Obamacare is needlessly complex because the role of government is not large enough -- that the logical solution is the simplicity and efficiency of a single-payer system. It is a form of political delusion as deep as any found on the Ted Cruz right. A government fiasco is not the prelude to a more comprehensive government takeover. And Kathleen Sebelius is not Claudius hiding behind the curtain, about to be elevated as the emperor of all things health care.
But there is a serious danger here for the GOP as well. Republicans who believe that their only political task is to reflect -- to exactly mirror -- public distrust for government have drawn the wrong lesson. Those who ride such purely negative populism to power will merely become newer objects of public disdain. Americans do not want public officials who share their contempt for government; they want public officials who no longer justify it.
The alternative to grandiosity and incompetence is not to do nothing. It is to achieve policy goals in ways that are practical, incremental and effective. Americans have not ceased looking for responses to routine educational failure, persistent economic stagnation -- or to the problems of an expensive, inequitable health care system. These are public challenges, in which government plays an inescapable role. A successful political party will provide a superior conception of that role.
This realization seemed to have dawned in the immediate aftermath of the GOP's 2012 presidential loss. The Republican National Committee issued its "Growth and Opportunity Project" report, a brutally self-critical call for innovation in appealing to younger, minority and working-class voters.
That document now seems like it was issued long ago and far away. Most of the energy in the Republican Party today, at least in Washington, is expended on opposition, not on reform. And the travails of Obamacare have only fed that purely negative energy. Yet Republicans require an approach more sophisticated than pointing and laughing. The cultivation of contempt is the calling of the blogger. A public official has other tasks.
Health care should be an opportunity to demonstrate the appeal of a positive, reform-oriented conservatism. President Obama has provided the foil. Obamacare creates a powerful regulatory mechanism (the exchanges) that mandates comprehensive coverage, squeezes all insurance options into four tiers, ends risk-based insurance and replaces it with a system that is less attractive to healthy people, who then have to be compelled to participate.
Most conservative approaches, in contrast, would offer a flat, universal credit to everyone who doesn't get coverage from a large employer -- a credit set high enough to purchase catastrophic coverage with no out-of-pocket premium costs. People who currently have no insurance would be protected from catastrophic expenses at no personal expense. Everyone else could, as they now do, add on to that amount -- through employer contributions or their own money -- to get more comprehensive coverage with higher premiums. This approach would cover more people than Obamacare, which is likely to leave 30 million Americans uninsured.
Conservatives do not (or should not) oppose Obamacare because they want fewer Americans to receive health care. But making this clear requires an alternative that covers more people at a lower cost, without all the regulations, taxes and mandates of the current system.
On this issue, and others, Americans will be more likely to trust Republicans to govern when they demonstrate an interest in governing.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group