In the wake of the stunning debacle (in their view) in the Bay State last Tuesday, Democrats find themselves with two thrilling alternatives: They can drop their unread and unreadable 2,200-page monstrosity of a health care reform bill and be labeled as wimps, jerks, and hapless losers who wasted a year and couldn’t deliver. Or, they can try to ram the Senate bill through the House (which hates most of it) in order to pass a bill that two-thirds of the country now loathes with a passion. They can either jump off the ship or stay on and sink with it. Either way, they end up in the drink.
There’s an interesting split among Democrats as to which courses to take. Those edging their way toward the lifeboats are those members of the House and Senate who sooner or later have to be in touch with the voters. Those who want the bill passed (i.e., pushed down the throats of the howling public) are White House officials and pundits, bloggers, academicians, talk show hosts, and others who don’t face reelection in this year or any, and will even find their business improving if the bill passes and all hell breaks loose. The pundits, who have no skin in this game since they will not get fired, have transferred their soaring contempt for the American people to their beleaguered House members. “Jump! Jump!” they cry to the quivering congressfolk. No sacrifice is too great for others to make for their dreams.
“Democrats . . . have a congenital tendency to panic,” said Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, as if panic alone could explain a refusal to ram the Senate bill down the throats of House members, thus thwarting the clearly express will of most voters. “It’s Democrats freaking out,” said the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who later advised: “Ignore Massachusetts. . . . It’s a bit odd to argue that any special election could be a referendum on a bill that voters don’t understand.” (Not so odd when health care reform was the issue, Brown campaigned specifically on a pledge to reverse it, and 48 percent of his voters named it as their dominant cause.)
“Who elected Massachusetts to decide for the rest the country whether we move forward on the bill?” asked Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter. Actually, it’s the country itself that has done the deciding. It’s not Massachusetts alone: It’s Virginia and it’s New Jersey—big, diverse, and very different states that not long ago went big for Obama and had swings away from his agenda in the 20-30 point range. It’s the legions of independents who are fleeing Obama. It’s the two-thirds of the public that opposes the measure. It’s they who are deciding, not people at Newsweek.
Another key theme of the pass-the-bill pundits is that it’s the debate, not the bill, that’s unpopular, so the debate should be stopped by passing the bill in a hurry—so that the real debate can begin. This of course tends to reverse the usual process where a bill is debated before it is voted on, and passed only when it has achieved a consensus, but why fret these small matters? Pass the bill first, and argue it later, as the Red Queen might have said.
“The problem isn’t that health care reform itself is unpopular. It is that people are turned off by the current debate,” wrote Jacob Hacker and Daniel Hopkins in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “The Democrats should pass the health care bill now. . . . They can fix it later,” says the New York Times’s Gail Collins. But it was E.J. Dionne on Meet the Press on January 3, who expressed it most cogently.
The whole plan got discredited in the minds of some people because the legislative process looks really awful. And the more the focus was on the legislative process, the more people said “What’s going on here?” Once they pass a plan, you can actually talk about a plan.
Of course, if you talk about the plan then, it’s too late to defeat or amend it. But that seems to be the idea.
The pass-the-bill pundits focused in like a laser beam on the negative effects of having spent a whole year for nothing. Missing, however, was any calculation of the ills to be felt from doubling down in the face of a fierce public headwind on a plan that so many detest. They see Scott Brown’s win solely in the context of breaking the Senate supermajority, of being a technical glitch that requires a slight recalibration, not as the eruption of a national grassroots rebellion that has been brewing for months. There were the tea parties. There were the town halls. There was the slide in the polls, beginning in the summer and proceeding steadily downward. There was Virginia, which Obama won by 7 points, and Creigh Deeds lost by 18. There was New Jersey, which Obama won by 15 points, and Jon Corzine lost by 5. Then there was Massachusetts, which Obama won by 26 points and Brown won by 5, on an explicit promise to start over on health care reform.
The fourth try appears to have gotten the attention of some politicians. But not of the pundits or bloggers. They believe Democrats have taken all the hits they can from having voted for the bills in the first place, and have nothing more to lose. But Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and polls all show that resistance has spread to independents and to soft Democrats, and if the bill were rammed through by technicalities or dubious methods, their anger would further explode. The irony is that the pundits urging their party to defy the widely verified will of the people also want to make war on the rules of the Senate: for thwarting the popular will.
How many Democrats from purple or swing states (and since Massachusetts, this seems to be most of them) must now be wishing privately that Obama had lost to McCain? Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, with an assist from the White House, managed to wedge them into a position in which they could have voted against Obama-care and faced knee-capping threats from their putative leaders, or voted for it and faced decapitation by voters ten months down the road.
Since January comes before November, they chose to avoid the knee-capping now in the hope things would change for the better. But November draws nearer, and things have just gotten worse. Administrations have screwed up before, but this, in one of Obama’s pet words, is truly “historic” in terms of unforced self-destruction: No party before has wreaked such havoc upon its own members, created such division among its supporters, or sowed so much widespread despair. The fact that one year ago it stood on the pinnacle makes it still more amazing. As Jay Leno put it, “It’s hard to believe President Obama’s now been in office for a year. And you know, it’s incredible. He took something that was in terrible, terrible shape and he brought it back from the brink of disaster: The Republican party.”
It took work, but Obama, Reid, and Pelosi were up to the challenge. Heckuva job, people. Heckuva job.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.