Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It’s Not Over

Despite the excision of the public option and the Medicare buy-in and the dealing with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) — who was on board with the buy-in until he saw that it made liberals happy — the fact remains that until the Senate actually votes and then gets the House to agree to the bill, we’re no closer to having healthcare reform done than we were last June. The president can say we’re on the edge of the precipice — an odd choice of words — but that’s just talk and arm-twisting, and even if Mr. Lieberman is placated, there’s still Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), the next ego that needs to stroked in order to get 60 votes. There’s talk of getting him on board with more doubling down on anti-choice rules for women only in the bill, as well as some veiled threats (although that’s coming from the Weekly Standard, so consider the source). In other words, it’s a shell game, and today will bring yet another round — this time perhaps the focus will shift to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) or some moderate Republican. Oh, wait… there are none.

Meanwhile, progressives like Howard Dean are picking up the GOP meme of recent weeks that it would be better to kill the bill in its current state and start over again. As much as I admire Dr. Dean, I think that would be, as Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight put it so well, batshit crazy. Killing the bill now would do two things: it would give everybody in the entire spectrum of political thought the impression that the Democrats are incapable of governing despite the fact that overhauling the entire healthcare system is a lot harder than passing a resolution in favor of Christmas or passing tax cuts. This is a major undertaking, even if it passes in the current form without the public option. If it was easy, it would have been done in July, and if the Republicans didn’t see it as a real threat to their political future, we would not have to take it as a foregone conclusion that they would filibuster it without bothering to read it. But surface impressions such as intra-party squabbles overshadow all of that, and even if starting from scratch would be the right thing to do, voters by and large have little appreciation for the inside-the-Beltway dealings and expect instant results. So in political terms, it’s now or never. The 2010 campaign started on January 21, 2009, and if healthcare is still being debated next July, it will be nothing but a faint wisp of what we have now, and even that would have trouble getting through a House and Senate where everybody, even those who aren’t running for re-election, is reading the polls instead of the CBO scoring.

John Aravosis at AMERICAblog noted yesterday that President Bush was able to get major bills passed when the Republicans had, at the most, 55 votes in the Senate. He makes the point that “[w]hat the GOP lacked in numbers, they made up for in backbone, cunning and leadership. Say what you will about George Bush, he wasn’t afraid of a fight. If anything, the Bush administration, and the Republicans in Congress, seemed to relish taking on Democrats, and seeing just how far they could get Democratic members of Congress to cave on their promises and their principles.” In short, they were bullies, and they played the patriot card and 9/11 to a fine fare-thee-well. But there was something else, too. President Bush was able to get Democrats on board because they did not, to use Nate Silver’s term, go batshit crazy every time they heard of an idea from the Republicans. Ted Kennedy worked with the White House on passing No Child Left Behind, and besides, by and large, the Democrats then were not all hard-core lefties in the same way that all that’s really left of the Republicans now are birthers, deathers, and wing-nuts who by comparison make Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) the voice of moderation. In short, President Bush didn’t have to deal with an opposition party that was made up of lunatics. Yes, he had a lot of vocal opposition and a lot of people calling for his impeachment and questioning his validity as an elected president and his intellectual capabilities, but they weren’t coming from the well of the House of Representatives.

If in the next week the healthcare bill passes, it will be just the first of many of these adventures. The jobs bill, the climate change bill, the funding for the wars, the restoration of the economy, the repeal of DADT, the everyday business of running a large and complicated country will all encounter these mini-dramas. In a way it’s a good thing that President Obama is facing these moments now: he knows how it’s going to be for the rest of the ride.