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Strapped to the Mast of Healthcare Reform, Trying to Enjoy the View

(Via Flickr.)

With all deference to D-Day’s whip count posts, I think Matt Yglesias has the underlying dynamic of the upcoming House vote on the healthcare reform bill right:

This is one of these situations where now that the vote has been called, the votes will be there to pass the thing. . . .

Now that the count is underway, you can’t change the bill. So there’s no point in holding out for changing. . . . You have a victory, or you have a humiliating defeat. And everyone’s in the same boat. At that point, the votes will materialize.

The New York Times made a similar point:

In the homestretch of the health care debate, one obvious question being asked across the capital is whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi will find 216 votes to pass the bill. For a group of particularly jittery Democrats, the better question may be this: Who will be allowed to slip away?

. . .as the week inches along, with momentum steadily building to a Sunday vote, the party leaders are . . . beginning to decide which politically endangered lawmakers will be given absolution to vote no.

. . . There are, of course, very few votes to spare. Yet there are some. And even most Republican leaders concede that the mystery is not so much whether Democrats will reach the magic number of 216, but rather whose names will be included as yes votes in the final count.

. . . On Wednesday, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio was the first Democrat to explain his No-to-Yes evolution. Mr. Kucinich represents a safe Democratic district, and party leaders made it clear that he was not eligible for a pardon.

I don’t think this is just Village conventional wisdom at work.   Arguably, what we’re seeing now is not genuine persuasion, or even genuine bribery, but rather the time-dishonored tradition of Congresspeople competing to have it both ways — nominally opposing the potentially perilous legislation while making sure that it passes. (Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts implied to Mother Jones today that he was one of the lucky winners, announcing his intended “no” vote while admitting that the bill will probably pass — and rather than support a threatened Republican repeal effort, he will work to improve the bill once it does become law.)

The actual process may not feel as glibly cynical as that to the participants, but it seems increasingly clear that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t have proceeded with the vote unless she knew that the logic of “if this goes down, we all go down” would scare up the necessary ayes, one way or another.  To schedule the vote in the first place, Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic powers that be almost certainly had assurances from more than 217 members that “I’ll vote yes if you absolutely need my vote,” even if many of them would rather not be needed.

I could be wrong, of course; maybe the Democrats are headed for another crash-and-burn experience like when Scott Brown took over Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January.   But that election blindsided them, and the date couldn’t be changed once the danger became apparent.  In this case, President Obama, Pelosi and company scheduled the vote after weeks of behind-the-scenes deliberations… and I think we can all agree that bravery in the face of uncertainty isn’t exactly one of their distinguishing characteristics.

And I have to admit it: I’m in favor of passing the bill at this point.  I’m not smart enough to know who’s right about the policy merits — whether public opinion will swing in favor of it once it’s passed, as Obama has predicted, or whether the more ominous forecasts we’ve seen here will prove correct.

But I do know that the Democratic leadership has committed itself thoroughly enough to this effort, and spent enough time on it, that the political logic seems irrefutable — if the current legislation fails, there is zero chance that anything more progressive will emerge.  Instead, voters across the political spectrum will (with substantial justification) conclude that Democrats are inherently incapable of getting anything done, the 2010 elections will move the Congress substantially to the right (perhaps even into outright Republican control), and it will be another decade or more before anyone dares another attempt to tame the corporate health insurance dragon.

As painful as seeing this bill pass may be, I would submit that even responding to the need to fix an unpopular insurance reform law is a better bet for progressives than letting it fail, because at least there will be evidence that Congress can do something to address the problem.  Don’t underestimate the sheer helplessness that will be felt by left-leaning voters at all levels of political commitment (not just the diehards who follow this stuff closely) if the current effort crumbles into dust.

In saying that, of course, I’ve committed anyone who agrees with me to a different sort of helplessness.  Just about anyone reading this site almost undoubtedly wants a better bill, and here my “optimistic” argument is that we should want it to pass, no matter how bad we think it is, because its failure would be an even bigger (political) disaster.

For better or worse, by committing themselves to the legislation that’s on the table now — to return to Yglesias’ “same boat” analogy — Obama, Pelosi, and Harry Reid have forced us to go along for the ride.  I’m just busy hoping at this point that the iceberg some of us are seeing up ahead is just a mirage.  And if it isn’t, I hope we’re mentally rehearsing how to help man the lifeboats instead of settling for saying, “See!  I told you so!” as the ship goes down.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (