Michael Gerson

More typical is the recent reaction of Colin Powell, a close Obama ally. "We can't pay for it all," said Powell. "I'm concerned at the number of programs that are being presented, the bills associated with these programs, and the additional government that will be needed to execute them."

Powell is expressing what many moderates in the Senate must be thinking: Is a time of unsustainable debt and economic contraction really the right moment to add massive spending and debt, along with the taxes they eventually require? In what economic universe is this rational? Not even, apparently, in the pleasant, alternate universe of California, which last week began issuing $3 billion in "registered warrants," also known as IOUs. "We don't have the money to pay our bills," admitted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "It's a sad story."

By the time the health care debate begins in earnest, these challenges at the federal level will be unavoidable. Perhaps $1 trillion in spending will be on the table. Some of the resources necessary for a "revenue neutral" bill may come from savings in the health system. But administration and congressional officials are already hinting at the need for new revenues, including some type of tax on employer-provided health benefits. "The important thing at this point is ... to keep the discussions going," says David Axelrod, even if discussions include such taxes. "We haven't drawn a lot of bright lines," explains Robert Gibbs.

To pass his health proposal this year, Obama would first need to violate his word. As a presidential candidate, he pledged that "no one making less than $250,000 a year will see any type of tax increase" -- the most memorable number of the 2008 campaign. Taxing health benefits would certainly cross this very bright line and add to the public stock of cynicism.

Second, Obama would need to abandon economic common sense -- adding debt to debt or new taxes to a struggling economy. Either way, it would be a sad story.

Or maybe the captain could wake the passengers, end their dreams and announce the obvious: Because the economy has not improved, ambitious health reform must wait.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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