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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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Another strange view now being floated is that the public in general is angry because the bill is held up in Congress, and nothing is now being done. Let’s back up and break this down into two different segments: The liberal base is angry because the bill is being tied up in Congress. The public in general is furious because the bill is still being brought up at all. If the bill is passed, the base will be pleased, but the public at large will be even more furious. And at the last calculation, the public in general was about three times as large as the base. A similar view is that the bill has to pass because it’s unpopular, because it’s only after its passage that its merits can be fully discussed. In this sense, the debate in itself is the primary obstacle.  “We have to pass the bill, so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy,” says Nancy Pelosi. “Once they pass a plan, you can actually talk about a plan,” says E. J. Dionne. “No president can win the argument over health care prospectively because the country is not inclined to believe that Washington can reform a system this complex,” Ron Brownstein quotes White House flack Dan Pfeiffer. “The only way to sell comprehensive reform, Pfeiffer continued, is to pass it despite poor poll numbers, and then build support.” Usually, one builds support before voting, and then votes when one has it. But these are unusual times. 


Strangest of all is the popular theory that if the bill passes​—by bribes, threats, and payoffs, and against fierce opposition—there will be a triumphant, Rose Garden signing, and then the whole issue will fade. Good luck with that. A bill forced through against such popular dissent is likely to start, and not settle, contention, for two big reasons.

First, this bill is not only disliked, it is disliked intensely, and across a wide swath of the population. Majorities not only dislike it, but majorities of those majorities dislike it intensely. Twice as many independents dislike as support it intensely, and the intensity of antipathy has only grown. They dislike it intensely because it will affect them intensely, on a personal level. Tax cuts don’t affect everyone equally. Very few people are ever on welfare. Most people who live long enough do get on Medicare, but not everyone does at the same time. Health care involves everyone, every day, on an emotional, primitive, life and death level. Everyone needs doctors. Everyone has had an experience, or has friends and relations who have had the experience, where the right or wrong medical treatment at the right or wrong time by the right or wrong doctor made the difference between life and death, between a full and a partial recovery, and an experience that was neither traumatic nor financially ruinous, or one that was hell on all counts. Everyone fears a system that could give them the wrong doctor instead of the right one at just the wrong moment, and everyone, no matter how rich, strong, well-connected, or seemingly healthy, knows that an accident or a bad diagnosis can come any day. Polls show that most people believe this plan will make their care more expensive, and at the same time, less satisfactory than what they already have. Add to this the fact that the bill by necessity trips a mare’s nest of hot wires—abortion, rationing, euthanasia on the basis of “social utility,” and the whole moral complex of beginning- and end-of-life issues—and one has no reason for thinking this issue will be laid to rest soon.

Second, the bill’s defenders say “process” themes don’t move the public, and they may be right. But what they call “process” in this case reads like “corruption” to others, such as the bribes, threats, and buyoffs with which the bill cleared the Senate. Three hundred million dollars to buy Mary Landrieu, over a billion to pay off Ben Nelson. Besides being corrupt, the administration is looking inept in the bargain: The past week brought Massapiece Theatre, along with the wavering Democratic congressman whose brother was offered a judgeship just as he was being asked to the White House for a collegial talk. This is beginning to look like The Godfather crossed with a Marx Brothers movie, a bad sign for an administration that came in touting competence and projecting the feel of a Frank Capra film. 

In fact, the process is part of the problem, and stems from the bill’s weakness, which makes payoffs essential: “Because the legislation is frightening and unpopular, Democrats have had to resort to serial bribery,” writes George Will, correctly. “Massachusetts voted immediately after the corruption of exempting, until 2018, union members from the tax on high value” insurance plans. This and the Cornhusker Kickback helped fuel Scott Brown’s upset, which created the need for still more extravagant buyoffs: Each bribe makes the bill more unpopular, creating the need for more bribes. Senate rules may bore voters, but they find this arresting—one reason the strife will go on.

Other big bills may have been controversial, but most passed in the end by comfortable margins. No reform bill on this grand scale has ever passed in the face of such opposition, with solid majorities so firmly against it, with no votes at all from the opposite party, and with the party in power so split. No such bill had an organized opposition​—the tea party movement—in place against it, ready to march at the first opportunity. Opposition to health care has been very good to the Republican party, and as long as it is, the party will use and run on it. Legal challenges from the states, already in progress, will also add to the air of contention. This is a war that could go on for years.

Liberals say Democrats have to pass this bill to prove they can govern. But will the public see wasting a year on something that’s not a priority, then pushing a bill they don’t want through multiple payoffs, and ending up with something they think will make their lives worse as a species of “governing” they want anything more to do with? Meanwhile, the Democrats are in the intensive care unit, their president wounded, their members demoralized, their coalition in tatters. Come November, voters may decide they’d rather be much less “governed”—or governed by somebody else.


Noemie Emery is a Weekly Standard contributing editor and columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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