It’s been an exceptionally long year for the president, his party, the Democratic caucuses in the Congress and everyone who was involved in whatever fashion in the 2008 election. A year ago, the Health Care debate got started in a climate in which there was little doubt that the president would pass his plan, and soon. That reality was most clearly expressed in the stance adopted by the key industry stakeholders who wanted to be in the discussion and on board rather than in opposition to it. They figured that passage was a done deal and wanted to affect the final bill in their favor as much as possible rather than waste time opposing it.Then the debate dragged on over many months. The pace slowed in the early summer. Then there was the town hall Crazy ™ of August. And from there we know the rest — the ugliness, close calls, the shuddering collapse of morale after January 19th. But the truth is, nothing matters but the final result. No one remembers the politicking in advance of Medicare or Social Security or really anything else. There’s either a reform law or there’s not. That’s why, even though it’s still a momentous event in political circles, the 1994 run at Health Care Reform might as well never have happened.
Even over the last two days you’ve seen a shifting of perspective as all the drama and angst of recent months recedes before the reality of final passage. There’s no denying this is certainly the biggest and by almost any definition the first major social legislation in the United States in almost five decades. (Congress passed Medicare in 1965.)
Today, when David Frum wrote that this was turning out to be the GOP’s Waterloo, he had two interlocking points — one focused on policy, another political.
The US has had several runs with major pieces of social legislation. And the record is that they don’t get repealed. They’re expanded and become embedded in the national political economy. That was what was at the heart of Bill Kristol’s famous (or infamous) memo on reform from 1994. Once Health Care reform is passed; the middle class will like it. And there will be no repealing or doing away with it. And its success would create a new generation of Democrats. That was his fear.
To that end, Frum’s policy point was, who cares if the Republicans take back Congress? Majorities come and go. But reform is permanent. For conservatives it’s a catastrophic development and if they’d actually been part of the dialog they probably could have gotten a bill much more to their liking. The second point is political, though he’s less clear in this case. Republicans, he says, are probably overestimating their chances this fall in any case.
I’m far from wanting to hazard a prediction. But I’ve thought for a while that this is right. Seven months is always a long time in politics. But this seven months particularly could be very long indeed.
I was in DC last week. And I was again struck, as I used to be when I lived there (1999-2004), by the powerful group-think that affects the place. It’s really no different than you’d see in any other company town. But it’s pervasive and hard to escape. When I was training down I read an update from a campaign watcher whose work I normally greatly respect. He clearly believed that Health Care Reform was not only a catastrophe for Democrats but that the actual passage of the bill would have no political effect. According to him, we’re on pretty much a straight line between today and the November elections.
Again, I don’t want to paint any rosy pictures. And, as I said, I don’t want to hazard any predictions. But I think this conventional wisdom is quite mistaken. Hard fought victories don’t deplete political capital; they build it. And political wins themselves often have a catalyzing effect that shapes political opinion far more than we realize.
Make no mistake, it’s a genuinely historic moment, a realization that only now seems to be dawning on people. And expect to have political repercussions far greater than people expect. But as I wrote earlier, even if they lose their majorities in November, they’ll be able to say: This is what we used these majorities to do. And it was worth it.