Colummn for 28 March, 2010


 “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise.”

                                                                                                            –Proverbs 15:31

 After a long solid year of political trench warfare, Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats managed to do the impossible:  they didn’t screw up.  And, to be perfectly honest, no one was more surprised than me.  Everything about the plan seemed designed to fail: desperate to avoid Bill and Hillary Clinton’s mistake of crafting a bill and dumping it in Congress’ lap, Obama went to the other extreme and offered up only a few vague goals to painfully grind their way through the Congressional sausage-making machine; instead of starting from a strong position (single-payer, for example), Obama went with a weak compromise before the negotiations even began; Democrats fell for Republicans’ trap in agreeing to postpone debate until after the August 2009 recess, leading to the spectacle of hysterical paranoia at town hall meetings across the country; spending month after painful month desperately attempting to persuade Republicans to get on board, even trading away the public option, long after it was blatantly obvious to everyone besides Barack Obama that not a single GOP member of Congress would lift a finger to support any version of healthcare reform, no matter how weak.  And don’t get me started on the cosmic ineptitude of the Massachusetts Democratic establishment and the anemic Martha Coakley.  Nevertheless, in spite of everything, Obama managed to succeed where presidents since Theodore Roosevelt had failed.  He succeeded for a couple of reasons:  first, at long last, Obama decided to get back into campaign mode and personally fight for what will likely be the defining initiative of his presidency.  Second, he resisted the advice of Rahm Emmanuel and others to scale down the proposal even further or even scrap it entirely and start over, a strategy Speaker Nancy Pelosi scornfully referred to as “kiddie care.”  Third, Obama had powerful allies in Pelosi and (shockingly) Senator Harry Reid.  Pelosi, with her masterful strong-arming of the recalcitrant Democratic Caucus, is well on her way to being a Congressional leader in the mold of giants like Sam Rayburn.  Harry Reid, on the other hand, has been criticized by many (including me) as weak, vacillating and incapable of real leadership, probably even incapable of holding his own Senate seat.  Here, though, he pulled it together and kept an even more fractious caucus together when it really counted.  The final reason for Obama’s success was the Republic Party’s amazing shark-jumping.  By doubling-down on the ludicrous, insane, Glen Beck-ian rants and conspiracy theorizing, Congressional Republicans actually galvanized the Democrats into action, and rarely do you see the words “Democrats” and “action” in the same sentence.  Of course, the final result of the Democrats’ success is something of a kludge and will, like Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid before it, have unforeseen consequences, both good and bad.  For one thing, it is heavy on expanded coverage and light on controlling costs, especially since Obama capitulated on the public option.  Believe it or not, controlling exploding healthcare costs will be an even bigger fight than this was.  Without getting into the merits of the act in this limited space, it is worth examining the potential political ramifications.  The closer the final vote came, and the more Republicans warned of dire electoral consequences for Democrats who voted in favor, the more I was convinced of two things: that Republicans knew the bill was going to pass and they were scared of what would happen when it did.  The GOP has painted itself into a corner.  By refusing to cooperate in the slightest with the healthcare reform initiative, denouncing it as (literally) Armageddon, and then failing to stop it, Republicans are now in the position of the boy who cried wolf.  There are early indications that public support for reform is increasing; what will John Boehner and Mitch McConnell say when the death panels fail to materialize?  The Democrats were smart enough to front-load the popular portions of the act and back-load the more painful aspects.  How many Republican candidates want to campaign on restoring power to large health insurance corporations?  Already, John Cornyn is backing off of a hasty pledge to repeal the entire act and Chuck Grassley is actually taking credit for portions of it.  Cornyn and Grassley are nobody’s fools; they know there is a serious danger that childish tactics like screaming “baby killer!” and shutting down unrelated committee hearings carry a very real risk of backfiring.  Remember when Newt Gingrich shut down the entire Federal government in a showdown with Bill Clinton?  Remember how that worked out?  David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, recently wrote that this scorched-earth, all-or-nothing strategy handed “conservatives and Republicans their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960’s.”  Combine this with death threats and acts of vandalism by extremists whipped into a frenzy by Republicans and their official propaganda arm FOX “News,” and you get a recipe for backlash.  If Democrats are smart (always a big “if”), they will run aggressively on healthcare reform, daring Republicans to support discrimination against children with pre-existing conditions, lifetime benefit caps, and all the other despised tactics of the insurance industry.  They should follow up by pushing a new jobs bill and follow that up with financial regulation reform.  Put the Republicans on record voting against jobs and in favor of banks.  Keep the momentum, don’t concede control of the news cycle, go with that rare heading feeling you all are currently experiencing.  It’s called success.  You’ve given yourselves a new chance, Democrats; try not to blow it.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 7:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

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