The Magazine

Dead Congress Walking

The Democrats are afraid of the voters and mad at each other. Their vaunted health care reform is going to do them in.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Supporters of the current legislation on health care reform compare this effort to Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, but the differences between them are stark. None of these passed with substantial majorities of the public strongly against them. None passed without substantial backing from the opposite party. None of them had the remarkable effect of uniting the opposition in monolithic resistance, while at the same time splitting their party, demoralizing it, and setting its various factions strongly at odds. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson never had to spend billions of dollars to pick up the votes of unhappy senators. Their stature was enhanced by passing these measures, not lessened and compromised. And their bills were passed on their merits, not on desperate appeals to save the party and president from a political pasting, which seems the main talking point being used on reluctant members of Congress now. “The crusade that is dragging itself toward the finish line doesn’t quite feel like a triumph, let alone the launch of a new New Deal,” wrote Howard Fineman in Newsweek, even before Scott Brown tossed his bombshell. “The reasons offered .  .  . have been ever-shifting. .  .  . By the time Bill Clinton met privately with Senate Democrats .  .  . it was .  .  . primarily about the political optics: the need to pass something, anything, to avoid defeat.” “Their sole remaining reason for completing the damned thing is that they started it,” writes George Will, noting that the main passion driving Democrats is a fear of repeating the 1994 wipeout, which they trace, perhaps incorrectly, to the failure to pass health care that year. At any rate, the main emotion among Democrats seems to be a balance of terror: fear of passing the bill against fear of killing it, making them face the wrath of the voters; or their party’s base, leaders, and president. 

No party or president has ever put its members in a vise of this nature before. Or seen its backers make so many strange statements in trying to press a bill’s case. Back in the days before Scott Brown’s victory, when the Democrats still had their 60-man supermajority, the claim was that the fault lay in the “system” and the Senate, and never in the bill. “What precisely is the point of the United States Senate?” asked New York magazine’s John Heilemann. “If a popular, shrewd president coupled with a Congress with a strong majority in both houses held by the president’s party can’t get its program passed .  .  . something is structurally wrong.” What was wrong, however, wasn’t the structure. The president was not in fact shrewd and was no longer popular, the party wasn’t strong but split (at least on this issue), and the bill was disliked by much of the public, which made its objections often and noisily felt.

As for the Senate, it is a more representative body than Obamacare’s defenders believe. In many states having two Democratic senators, the health care bill polls very poorly; indicating not that the Senate rules give the minority too much power, but that in many states represented by Democrats, the senators aren’t giving voice to their voters’ ideas. Virginia, which has two Democrats (James Webb and Mark Warner), strongly opposes the president’s version of health care and gave Republican Bob McDonnell a landslide in the governor’s race to drive home the message. New Jersey, with two Democrats (Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez), elected Republican Chris Christie governor to make the same point. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is in very deep trouble, as is her fellow Democratic senator, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, who, when he got the Cornhusker Kickback, was jeered and hissed roundly by resident voters, and saw his numbers plummet. Massachusetts, which between 1978 and 2010 had no Republican senators at all in its delegation, and for eight years had no Republican members of Congress, elected Republican Scott Brown, on a pledge to fight health care. In this sense, John Kerry, Paul Kirk, and even Ted Kennedy, didn’t represent Massachusetts. The woes of the health care reform are not the fault of the Senate at all.

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