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Monday, March 22, 2010  

When Jim DeMint said health care would be Obama's Waterloo, he was referring to Wellington

I'll have something more reflective and constructive (I hope) to say later, but I'm still on a big-time politics contact high at the moment and digesting the remarkable process we've been through.

Winners:

The President deserves a lot of credit for this, and the smoothing-out process by which colloquial history is recorded and handed on will place him at center stage. Not that long ago, some of us were worried that he didn't have the stomach for this fight. Indeed, had the Republicans actually been willing to win this battle, they almost certainly would have. But in effect they forced the President to keep fighting for his chief domestic priority long past the point where the administration would probably have accepted a smaller plan with which to parachute out of the debate. All that being said, however, Obama stuck with it, worked the phones, made some promises and threats, and played a decisive role in bringing it home. He has managed to do what Clinton, Carter, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Truman, Roosevelt, Wilson, and the other Roosevelt failed to do. That's an impressive list to surpass.

Harry Reid deserves more credit than he's likely to get for this, at least for the time being. His strategy and tactics throughout have been questioned by everyone, and he would have earned a whole lot of the blame had this all fallen apart. But success vindicates itself. Considering how utterly insane and dysfunctional the U.S. Senate has been exposed as being in the last year, it's remarkable that Reid was able to get this done at all. And he did it while sucking wind in the polls back home. The warped ethics of Washington forgive all things done in pursuit of re-election, but Reid bizarrely chose to govern rather than cover his backside. Good for him.

Nancy Pelosi, however, is the real hero of this story. When Scott Brown's election left the upper chamber and the administration in the familiar posture of looking for someone to surrender to, Pelosi insisted that the plan move forward. I really recommend following that link. It's a fascinating story in which she is clearly the major player. The habitual and unconscious misogyny of our political and media elites obscures this, but Pelosi is a brutally effective Speaker--a woman who in three short years has come to tower over decades of predecessors. Think about it: Denny Hastert was a sock-puppet for Tom DeLay, who managed to hand the lawmaking process over to lobbyists very effectively but left no legislative record worthy of anything but lament. Newt Gingrich was a failure of epic proportions. So was Tom Foley, 1993 budget excepted. Jim Wright and Tip O'Neill weren't bad, but if Pelosi were a back-slapping, cigar-chomping man like them, the media would be anointing her as the great heir to Sam Rayburn--which in fact she is.

And it pains me to say it, but Bart Stupak deserves some credit too. While his overall stance toward the bill was, in my view, profoundly misguided and immoral, in the end he was willing to accept the kind of face-saving gesture on which big bills often pivot. He was trying to get to 'yes,' which was not clear for much of the process.

Let's not forget the grassroots Democrats, too, who surprised everyone by being united and effective and mature about a couple of bills that fell short of our ambitions but offered a big step in the right direction. If we'd listened to some of the voices on our own side, the plug would have been pulled months ago and we'd be years or decades away from another chance at reform. Which brings me to...

Losers:

Holier-than-Jesus liberal bloggers did not help themselves or anyone else by deciding that everyone playing a constructive role in this process was a sellout. It's a shame, too, because Jane Hamsher has done some great work over the years on things like civil liberties, but it's hard to imagine how her standing and that of many others won't suffer badly.

The tea partiers managed to whip the GOP caucus into line on this issue, but they still lost and though no one seems to know it yet, their movement has already passed its zenith. As attention turns to immigration, carbon, and financial reform, the political calculus will be very different and the GOP establishment will inevitably go back to treating its base like fools. And they left the nation with indelible images of idiotic crowds flinging racial slurs and threats of violence as a testimony to their brief moment in the sun.

At the same time, moderate Republicans didn't come out looking too great, either. People like Chuck Grassley and Orin Hatch started out with an apparent intention to participate constructively, but were yanked back to heel by McConnell and the tea party crowd. This strategy, however, was predicated on actually killing all Democratic attempts at health reform. Mitt Romney and Scott Brown, too, managed the feat of failing to kill a program they both supported in Massachusetts.

Last, but hardly least, we can't forget Cardinal George and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. They were incorrect on the narrow issue of the bill's abortion provisions, wrong on the substantive pro-life issues involved in the bill as a whole, and to make matters worse they practically forced the nuns, the health professionals, and lay lawmakers into open dissent. You just can't do that and expect to maintain the essential illusion that you speak definitively for the faithful. Of course I have theological reasons to celebrate the nuns and lay workers trumping the hierarchy, but there is a political side, too. After years of Catholic political identity becoming increasingly identified with the right wing and with the voice of the bishops, suddenly the church has a plurality of voices again. The bishops of course hate nothing more than disagreement with themselves, but they really asked for it this time. I will admit to enjoying the periodic attempts by Charles Chaput and George Weigel and the whole clown show to exclude everyone to the left of Robert Bork from the Catholic fold. The worst thing that could happen, of course, is that they get their wish. Shorn of their straying faithful, Charles Chaput is just another hack.

This is not just a list of people I like and people I don't. I really do wish the USCCB had decided to play a constructive role. I wish Mitt Romney had been able to talk like an adult about his own health care reform. I wish Atrios had done more than sniff at a bill that will extend health insurance to a staggering number of people. I wish I could stay angry at Bart Stupak. But politics does strange things. It puts us to the test in unexpected ways. Surprising people pass and fail.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:40 AM
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