THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
These are tough times in Washington, or at least so everyone is telling you. The President’s approval rating is down, Congress is thoroughly loathed, and the level of bi-partisanship is at its lowest point in decades. Do you know what that means? There’s only one place to go: up!
Actually, I’m rather liking the situation in Washington these days, because things are bound to get better. For starters, they are at least going to get exciting.
On March 29th, Congress takes off for a full two weeks. Yeah, I know – they could take off for two months or two years and most of us wouldn’t miss ’em. But seriously, this particular recess comes at an opportune time. It has been about ten months since health care reform first dominated this President’s agenda – and it has been front and center ever since. Even those of us who support passing a bill are sick and tired of the gridlock it has generated. It’s time for this President and this Congress to fish or cut bait. That means that when the Congress returns from its recess on April 10th, you can bet that it will be ready to move on to other things. We’ll still have demagoguery, corruption, scandals, hypocrisy, favoritism … all the things we’ve come to expect from a modern U.S. Congress. But they won’t involve health care reform, because if we don’t get this deal done by March 28th, it’s not happening any time soon.
The Congress knows that all too well. They have three weeks to implement sweeping health care legislation, or go down in history as just the latest in a growing line of Congresses to swing-and-miss when it comes to this topic. And the Democrats in Congress have been given a special gift that will increase their chances of making things happen now (as opposed to never): they no longer have to worry about depending on the Republicans for cooperation. The GOP has demonstrated that it is united in opposition to any bill. They’re not even pretending to be willing to throw a few votes in the Democrats’ direction. That means that the battle will be waged entirely on the Democrats’ side of the aisle. So say bye, bye to any temptation to waste time bashing Republicans. That Party has cast its no vote – we’ve heard them. Now we can and must ignore them. It’s time for the Democrats to stand up on center stage and show us who they are and what they’ve got.
By all rights, the Democrats should have a cake walk passing a health care reform bill. They have the White House. They have 59 percent of the House, and 59 percent of the Senate. And now that the Republicans have abdicated their right to participate in grooming any bill, the Dems have effectively been given carte blanche to pass a bill through reconciliation, meaning that they need only a bare majority in both houses of Congress to get the job done. Add to those facts one more: during the Presidential primaries before this past election, EVERY major Democratic candidate unequivocally championed the need to make our health care system much more universal. So the Democrats have to recognize that their base is rabidly supportive of health care reform. Oh yeah – and there’s also the fact that the whole raison d’être of the Democratic Party rests on the need to provide the poor, working class and lower-middle class with the same fundamental rights that the rest of us enjoy. If a meaningful opportunity to obtain health care insurance isn’t counted among those rights, what is?
Whenever I read in the newspaper about the bleak state of Congress’s efforts to reform health care, I’m reminded of one simple truth: the Democrats in Congress simply have no choice. If they want to retain their credibility as a Party, they know that they must deliver. And as for individual Democrats in Congress, if they come across as opposing this cause at this time, they run the risk of being ostracized by their fellow Democrats. Something tells me that with a 59 percent majority, even the Democrats can’t figure out a way to blow this one – they might be incompetent, but I don’t think they’re courageous enough to become a second Party of No. It takes guts to channel Groucho as Professor Wagstaff in Horsefeathers, who famously said, “Whatever it is. I’m against it.” Democrats just aren’t that gutsy.
So, my guess is that in the three weeks between now and March 29th, we’ll go through plenty of entertaining sturm und drang, as Democratic Representatives and Senators hand-wring and posture and generally make asses of themselves. But by the time the 29th comes around, we’ll have ourselves a new health care reform bill.
Still, I admit that my prediction might be overly optimistic. The Democrats could indeed tie themselves up like a bunch of drunks playing Twister. They could end up leaving for the recess by throwing up their hands and throwing some of their fellow Democrats under the bus. “Of course I wanted health care reform,” they might say, “but we’ve got to pay for what we spend. Some of my colleagues don’t seem to get that.” Blah, blah, blah. It isn’t hard to imagine failure, now is it?
The thing is, though, that even if that happens – even if the nation’s uninsured get screwed – there should at least be a huge silver lining. If I’m right, the progressives who’ve tried until now to cut the President some slack will be loaded for bear. They’ll demand the kind of change the President promised in his campaign but has yet to deliver. They’ll ignore the GOP – which should be a pleasure -- and instead shine the light where it belongs: on the so-called Democrats who couldn’t give a damn about core Democratic principles but nevertheless occupy seats, and even positions of leadership, within the Democratic caucus. They’ll put pressure on these politicians to behave like Democrats or get the hell out of Washington. Call it a spring cleaning. Lord knows that the Party needs one.
Let’s assume the conservatives are correct and that this really is a center-right country. In such a land, before meaningful progressive changes can occur, conditions might need to seem dire. After eight years of Bush Light, the country was desperate for change, and that’s why we have Barack Obama. Now, the country might need to see the Democratic Party turn into the Keystone Kops before it is ready to kick some donkey butt. Frankly, I hope this doesn’t have to happen. I truly would love to see health care reform passed. But if the bill doesn't pass, hope might not be altogether lost for the Obama Administration. Next time, though, the impetus for change might have to come from the grass roots rather than from either side of Pennsylvania Avenue. And if it comes to that, it may not be pretty for the likes of Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and the other lukewarm Democrats.