There was a moment at this week's Democratic convention that seemed to encapsulate the party's stunted vision. It came during the remarks of Maria Ciano, a Colorado woman who presents herself as a former Republican distressed by the modern GOP. "I still believe in small government, but I no longer believe in the Republican Party," she said. "Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want the government to have a say in my family planning. They want employers to decide what kind of birth control coverage I have—or if I can have it at all."
It's an interesting sleight-of-hand that allowed Ciano to get from praising small government to defending a new government mandate in just three sentences. But that's not why I'm quoting her. I'm bringing her up because it's useful to think about why Ciano's employer would have a role in her birth control purchases in the first place.
The answer comes in two parts. First, because the law requires a woman to get a prescription before she can buy the pill, and it requires her to get an invasive and frequently unnecessary medical exam before she can acquire that prescription. Eliminate those controls, and insurance coverage would be beside the point; the pill would be cheaply available over the counter. Second, because changes to the tax code in the 1940s and '50s have channeled us into a system where Americans overwhelmingly get their health insurance through their jobs. Eliminate those incentives, and far fewer people would be dependent on their employers for insurance at all, substantially reducing the relevance of the boss's opinions about birth control.
It goes without saying that Barack Obama has displayed no interest in rolling back the FDA's birth control rules. Nor has he moved away from the policies that push people into employer-based health coverage, or, more broadly, from a system where so many medical services are purchased via insurance in the first place. Indeed, his signature accomplishment is a law requiring people who don't have health insurance to buy it.
If you can't afford to buy it, you may qualify for financial assistance. That's the Democratic Party's promise: We won't end the policies that empower big institutions and raise the cost of living, but when they send you the bill we might help you pay. You saw the same idea at work when various speakers this week invoked student loans: The Democrats will lend you money for college, but they'll do nothing to end the legally enshrined credentialism that makes so many professions off-limits without a degree. And if those subsidies end up inflating the cost of tuition and health care even more…well, then the pols will just call for more subsidies.
When Democrats invoked "equality of opportunity" this week, that's what they were talking about: government action to help people run through mazes that the government helped erect. I don't expect the Dems to stop looking for ways to offer assistance, but dammit, it would be nice if some of them would take on the mazes instead of hatching plans that'll make them more complex.
Last week the Republicans touted themselves as the party of I-built-that entrepreneurship while presenting corporate welfare queens like Boeing as business heroes. This week the Democrats touted themselves as the party of working Americans while praising policies that shore up the insurance industry and the collegiate sorting machine (and while offering an argument for the auto bailout that amounted to a trickle-down defense of corporate welfare). For the next two months, those parties' standard-bearers will tout this election as a stark choice between deeply different alternatives. Where are those factcheckers when you need them?