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Gut check time for Democrats

| As my mama used to say, "Time to fish or cut bait." A year ago Obama was swept into office with Democratic majorities in both House and Senate, by a populace fed up with George Bush and his cronies. Obama had campaigned on a promise of change, and it was change that people expected. He was seen as having a mandate to make big changes.

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Do you think Obama has a mandate to carry out the agenda he presented during the presidential campaign, or should he compromise on the things the Republicans strongly oppose?
(Washington Post-ABC News Poll, Jan 13-16, 2009)
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Do you think Obama has a mandate to work for (major new social and economic programs) or for (only small policy changes)?
(Washington Post-ABC News Poll, Jan 13-16, 2009)

And then the bottom fell out of the economy and the financial system of the world threatened to collapse. Obama saw fixing our outrageously expensive healthcare system as part of putting the economy back on a sound footing, and Democrats tackled reform.

To his credit, Obama tried to let the legislative branch — Congress — do what it is supposed to do — legislate. He wanted to avoid the Clinton mistake of presenting Congress with ready-made legislation for them to simply enact; that offended the sensibilities of the Congress and "Hillary-care" went down in flames. So Obama outlined major principles and let Congress have at it. And have at it they did.

What followed was a year of committee hearings and compromise after compromise — i.e., "backroom deals" — to placate conservative Democrats, many from generally "red" states, and to win at least token Republican votes.

This was a noble effort, but it was ultimately futile and counter-productive. The Republicans early on made a decision that they would simply do everything in their power to make Obama fail, no matter how many compromises they were offered. And the blue-dog Democrats used every bit of their leverage to extort sweetheart deals to make themselves look good and support their personal agendas. The reek of those deals, combined with the distortion, dis-information, and bald-faced lies spread by the Republican slime machine turned public opinion strongly against "Obama-care."

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Nevertheless, the Senate eventually passed a comprehensive bill by the 60 votes now needed to overcome constant Republican filibuster or threat thereof. The House passed a comprehensive bill by 220 to 215, despite the defection of 39 Democrats. The two bills have significant differences, and in the normal course of legislation, a conference committee would iron out the differences and the agreed-upon final bill would then go back for final approval. But the normal course of things is now impossible. The Democrats have since lost their 60-vote margin in the Senate leaving Republicans capable of stopping anything they please under the rules of the Senate.

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Obama: "...let me just guess. That's the 2,400-page health care bill. Is that right?"

What to do? Obama called Democrats and Republicans from both the House and the Senate to the White House for an all-day televised summit meeting to look for common ground. This was another noble effort with a foreordained outcome. The Republicans stuck mostly to their talking points, insisting that the only way forward was by going back to square one. In his closing remarks, Obama himself acknowledged that the two sides are at an impasse, admitting "I don't know, frankly, whether we can close that gap."

So the summit was a total waste of time, right? Not so fast. One thing that was accomplished was to make perfectly clear that the Republicans have no plan for addressing the problem and, what's more, they don't really care. In contrast to the rest of the developed world, they simply don't believe that people are entitled, have a right to, healthcare. They are perfectly content to leave the responsibility on individuals. And if 30 million people end up without healthcare that's too bad, they shouldn't be poor.

A second positive outcome is that the summit gives Obama and the Democrats a bit of political cover against the anger that people have about the gridlock in Washington: they "went the extra mile," they tried. "You can lead a horse to water...."

The simple truth is that the Republicans have always been better at politics than Democrats, and it all comes down to this: Republicans are willing to be mean, really mean, in pursuit of political power. They are all about getting theirs (actually, everybody else's, too). Democrats by their very nature are just too nice to play down and dirty.

So it's gut check time. Will the Democrats have the balls to do what is necessary to enact reforms? (It's only been 50 years since Harry Truman first proposed universal healthcare.) Or will they crumble and let the Republicans defeat them — and us — once again? Will they finally recognize the political reality that if healthcare reform is going to get done it will have to get done by Democrats alone without any Republican help?

A scenario exists by which the ability of Senate Republicans to filibuster anything to death can be circumvented.

As I see it, politically the Democrats don't have a choice: they are going to have to run on healthcare in the November election whether they want to or not.

• If they don't pass healthcare reform Democrats are going to be crucified by Republicans for having wasted a year and a half trying to engineer a "government take-over" of healthcare. In the hands of the Republican slime-meisters, any relevant facts will be irrelevant. Democrats will lose big.

• If they do pass healthcare reform Democrats are going to be crucified by Republicans for having engineered a "government take-over" of healthcare against the "clear opposition of the American people." Democrats are still going to lose (the majority party always loses seats in the off-year elections), but they at least have a fighting chance.

To me this is a no-brainer. Running on "I went to Washington and didn't accomplish diddley-squat" is the way to defeat. Running on "I went to Washington and got good reforms done despite those obstructionist Republicans" at least gives you a fighting chance.

It's not just wishful thinking. The Republican are fond of citing the polls showing that a big percentage of people are opposed to Obama's healthcare plan. What they don't acknowledge is that when individual provisions in the plan are polled, people approve of them by wide margins. That people hold these contradictory views is testament to the effectiveness of the Republican FUD campaign (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

Republicans are throwing up a huge smoke screen about how awful it would be for Democrats to use "reconciliation" to "pass" healthcare reform. This is just a smoke screen:

Reconciliation has never been used for "big" measures, only for budgetary details
Hogwash! The odious Patriot Act came to us through the wonders of reconciliation, as did Bush 43's two tax cuts for the wealthy. In fact, reconciliation has been used 22 times between 1980-2008 for a wide variety of measures.
Healthcare reform would be passed by only 51 votes in the Senate
More hogwash! The Senate bill passed by 60 votes. Reconciliation is being discussed only for amendments to the bill, amendments which everybody wants!

Of course, Republicans have shown great facility in turning against policies that they were for before the Democrats included them in a bill. Consistency has never been a core value in Washington — for either party.

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Last updated on Apr 13, 2018

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