It's rare in politics to find a debate that manages to dig down to ideological bedrock, but the current furor over the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-Chip) and the plight of a Baltimore, Maryland family that dared to speak out in favor of the program's expansion is just such a rare instance.

A few weeks ago both the house and senate passed a bill that would expand S-Chip so that working-class families, and not just poor families, would be eligible. President Bush vetoed the bill on purely ideological grounds, since it would expand the number of people covered by the government. The Frosts are just the kind of household that would benefit from the program. With three kids and a combined income of $45,000 they've struggled to find health insurance after a car accident left their son Graeme in a five-week coma and needing lots of medical care. Luckily for them, Maryland's S-Chip eligibility cutoff was high enough that they were able to secure health insurance for their children through the program. After the Democrats in Congress chose Graeme to give the party's response to the president's weekly radio address, right-wing bloggers, led by the odious Michelle Malkin, leapt into action. With neurotic obsession, they began raising questions about the family's financial status, claiming that their trappings of middle-class existence (a home, kids - on scholarship! - in private school) meant they were frauds or hucksters. But they're not. They're just a working family who suffered a tragedy and can't afford private health insurance. (Heck, they can't even buy private health insurance since Graeme's pre-existing conditions mean no insurer will go near them). Welcome to life in America in the third decade of conservative rule.

So why are conservative bloggers terrorizing this family? Why are they driving past their house and posting pictures of the school that Graeme attends? Why are they interrogating the Frosts' neighbors? Well, one theory is that they are a pitchfork-wielding mob of hate-filled sociopaths who saw an opportunity to extract their pound of flesh from some random and defenseless family that had dared to align themselves with their political opponents. That's pretty sound as explanations go, but I think there's a deeper strategic component to the ferocity with which conservative have attacked the Frosts.

It was back in 1993, as the Clintons prepared to roll out their new universal healthcare plan, that Bill Kristol wrote a memo to fellow conservatives and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill warning them that their goal must be to "kill," not amend, the Clinton plan. "Healthcare," Kristol wrote, "is not, in fact, just another Democratic initiative ... . It will revive the reputation of the ... Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests."

This is really the issue: from the New Deal through the Great Society, the Democrats dominated American politics by being first and foremost the stewards of social-democratic middle-class entitlements. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act, white southerners in particular and white middle-class voters in general, began to associate the Democrats with pursuing the interests of Others - minorities, homosexuals, welfare queens. Conservative political dominance in the post-Reagan era has rested on two pillars: preserving, at a rhetorical level, the conception of the Democrats as being beholden to "special interests" (who don't look like you) and, at the policy level, making sure Democrats never have an opportunity to pass legislation that would belie that claim.

That's the real reason this episode has unleashed such a fit of viciousness from the right. At some deep level conservatives recognize just how politically dangerous S-Chip is for their cause. Support for the program's expansion is running around 70% in polls, and Americans of both parties consistently rank healthcare as the most pressing domestic issue. But conservatives are simply way outside the mainstream of American opinion on this issue. Conservatives are of the belief that, in short, families like the Frosts should suck it up: work harder, sell their house to pay for medical bills, or just not get into car accidents in the first place. Stop whining.

This is not a very attractive ideology. What, for instance, would Bush, Malkin et al say to a woman in her 30s with an infant child and a husband who wants stay at home as the primary caregiver, but can't find affordable health insurance on the open market? A woman like the one who wrote this in 2004:

"After my husband quit his job earlier this year (to become a full-time stay-at-home dad), we had a choice. We could either buy health insurance from his former employer through a program called Cobra at a cost of more than $1,000 per month(!) or we could go it alone in Maryland's individual market. Given our financial circumstances, that "choice" wasn't much of a choice at all. We had to go on our own.
We discovered that the most generous plans in Maryland's individual market cost $700 per month yet provide no more than $1,500 per year of prescription drug coverage - a drop in the bucket if someone in our family were to be diagnosed with a serious illness."

The short answer is: nothing. Which is exactly the problem, because the woman who wrote that was none other than Michelle Malkin. Maybe the Democrats should have enlisted the 2004 version of her for their radio response last week. It would at least have saved the Frosts some grief.