A stranger moment in politics has seldom been seen. A vast expansion of government that affects every one of the country’s 300-plus million inhabitants may be passed by a hair against fierce and fiercely repeated public opposition by a Congress that no longer speaks for its voters—most of whose members are angry and scared. They are afraid of their voters, and mad at each other, or rather, the Democrats are: The liberals are mad at the centrists, the centrists are mad at the liberals. Democrats in the House are angry at those in the Senate, and deeply suspicious of being betrayed. The centrists are also mad at Obama, for picking the wrong cause (health care and not the economy), doing it in the wrong way (big and expensive, not incremental and smaller), and pushing them to risk their careers in backing a cause and a program neither they nor their constituents want.
For Obama himself, health care has been toxic, decimating his numbers, and ripping apart his mystique. In the course of the fight his approval ratings have dipped from near 70 to the mid-40s, his magic has vanished, and his words have gone flat. The coalition that elected him has fallen apart, as independents, mistakenly lured by his “conservative” temperament, have fled to the welcoming arms of the opposite party. Polling suggests that all the red and swing states Obama took from George W. Bush have now turned against him. The elections held since health care became the main issue have rendered votes of no confidence: In 2008, Virginia went to Obama by a 7-point margin; in 2009, it elected a Republican governor by 18, a 25-point recalibration. In 2008, New Jersey went to Obama by 15 points; in 2009 it went to Chris Christie by 4. Massachusetts, which went for Obama by 26 points (and which hasn’t had a Republican senator since the late 1970s), gave Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Republican who campaigned against health care, by a margin of 5 points. Respected nonpartisan political analysts now predict a “wave” election for the upcoming midterms, in which the out party wins one or both houses of Congress—an event that is usually driven by a major calamity like the failure of the Clinton health care reform plan in the 1994 midterms plus congressional scandal or the 2006 loss for Republicans, triggered by congressional scandal and what looked then like a loss in Iraq. Democrats hold massive majorities—18 seats in the Senate, and 79 in the House—but many of the states and districts that they represent now poll as being against the health care proposal, creating a major democratic dysfunction, as many members are voting against the wishes and interests of their districts and states. This lopsided body, in which Democrats are clawing to eke out even a one-vote majority, is a dead Congress walking, out of step with most of its voters, who on this issue at least are temporarily represented by the naysayers on the Republican side of the aisle. Health care reform has dissolved the Democrats’ coalition, and with it much of their moral authority. If health care survives, it will have been passed by the shell of a Congress that outlived its own mandate.