Democratic health care reform--Obamacare, that is--in either its House or Senate form is unpopular both in general and in most of its particulars. Not only that, it's become ever more unpopular as Obama has drawn more public attention to it. Yet the operating assumption of the president and congressional Democrats is that enacting Obamacare will increase their popularity and improve their prospects for reelection.
Does this make sense? Will passing a widely disliked piece of legislation endear voters to those who passed it? Not on your life.
And Obama and Democrats have also embraced the flip side of their dubious calculation. They believe the worst thing that can happen is failing to pass Obamacare or something close to it, or at least something. Just look what happened to Bill Clinton and Democrats when they failed to enact Hillarycare in some form or other. They lost the 1994 election in a Republican landslide.
In case anyone had forgotten, Clinton appeared at a lunch of Senate Democrats last week to remind them. "It's not important to be perfect here," Clinton said. "It's important to act, to move, to start the ball rolling. The worst thing to do is nothing."
Really? Polls now show the public prefers doing nothing to passing Obamacare.
The explanation for the seemingly illogical thinking of Obama and Democrats lies in the basic conceit of liberals: We know better. Sure, folks may like their current health care, but we'll give them a better, fairer, more reliable system that's good for them and the country. They'll grow to like it. And Obama and Democrats will get the credit and the boost in popularity that comes with it.
Maybe they're right--no, perish the thought. Health care reform is only the leading edge of the most unwanted, voter-unfriendly agenda a president has ever proposed and fought for. The stimulus, cap and trade, vast spending programs, re-regulation, record deficits, more power concentrated in Washington, Guantánamo--these aren't going to make Obama and Democrats more popular either.
But Obama and Democrats do have one very important thing going for them. They have large, impatient liberal majorities in both houses of Congress. So long as they can keep most Democrats on board, Democrats can pass anything, no matter how unpopular. And this is probably the only Congress (2009-10) in which they'll be able to do this.
Despite a 60-40 majority, they're in trouble on health care in the Senate. It was all but certain that Nancy Pelosi would be able to push Obamacare through the House, and she did--even while 39 Democrats bolted, some no doubt with her permission. Next to Obama and perhaps White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, she's the most powerful person in Washington. She's tough and, like Obama, highly ideological.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid is no Pelosi. He's a klutz. His problem is that the more he does to make Obamacare passable in the Senate, the less passable it becomes in the House.
Take the matter of a government-run insurance program, the so-called public option loved by liberals because it's a giant step toward a single payer system. The House bill includes one and so will the bill that Reid introduces. But at the moment, there are 41 senators ready to filibuster a bill with a public option in it--40 Republicans and independent Democrat Joe Lieberman.
That leaves Reid with the need to strip the public option from the bill. It won't be easy. More than 50 Democrats like the public option. There's a good chance 41 of them will be willing to filibuster any attempt to take it out. Reid is in a bind.
Then there's the Stupak amendment that put stringent rules against federal funding of abortions in the House health care bill. Putting Stupak in the Senate bill is highly unlikely. At least 41 senators, most Democrats plus a few Republicans, are sure to filibuster it successfully.
There's still more trouble for Reid. A handful of moderate Democrats--Evan Bayh of Indiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana--fear Obamacare is too sweeping and expensive. Reid must win them over. He can't offer too much, or he'll alienate more liberal senators. But he has other inducements, like promising Bayh that he'll head a commission to curb entitlements. Reid will have to be deft and clever, traits for which he's never been noted.
Minority leader Mitch McConnell won't be any help. He and Republicans have adopted a strategy of no improvements. They won't support any changes in Obamacare that might make it more palatable to moderate Democrats or queasy Republicans. This makes sense. McConnell wants to kill the bill and start over, this time with bipartisan reform in mind.
Fashioning a Democratic bill that attracts 60 votes is possible. But Reid will have to do this twice, first to gain passage in the Senate, then to get the Senate to approve the measure that emerges from a Senate-House conference--the Reid-Pelosi compromise, should the process get that far.
On both votes, Obama is bound to be personally involved, using whatever clout he can muster to win the 59th or 60th votes. His argument is one we've already heard: The failure to enact a bill would be disastrous for his presidency and for Democrats.
But what if an undecided Democratic senator, in a private chat with the president, asks about the public's distaste for liberal health care reform? "Mr. President, how will it help you and Democrats to pass an unpopular bill?" Obama may have a persuasive answer, but I can't imagine what it might be.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.