Alex Massie

Obama is Pot Committed

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Tony Blair used to say that "The job of being Labour leader is to save the Labour party from itself." Right now, I suspect that's how the Democratic Leadership in the House of Representatives feels about trying to rustle-up 216 votes for health care reform*.

Defections from Blue Dogs in Red States are one thing; threats from safely-ensconsed left-wingers for whom the bill doesn't go far enough are quite another. Verily, there will be much lamentation if the left kills the bill and thoughts will quickly turn to vengeance.

So will the damn thing pass or not? Jonathan Bernstein says he thinks it will, Karlyn Bowman says it would be remarkable if it does, given the ferocity of the opposition to the bill, leading Megan McArdle to act as umpire:

They're both right!  Where does that leave us?  At a defining moment in American legislative history . . . the Mothra v. Godzilla, irresistable force v. immovable object, rock v. hard place of policymaking.  It can't pass and it can't fail.  Yet it must do one or the other.

So where are we? All I know is that some Democrats who thought the bill dead and buried just a couple of weeks ago now believe that it's a 50-50 proposition. Given that, in the words of one, Obama has "remortgaged the White House" to pass what a leadership aide calls "the most significant social policy advance in my lifetime" it's not good for the bill that, despite all this investment, it remains a touch and go affair. If the administration loses this bet it's hard to see how Obama can retain enough political capital to remain in the game this year.

But because the White House has already spent so much capital on this project, the administration and the House leadership are, in poker terms, pot committed. The time for calculating sunk costs and walking away has passed. This calculation also holds, I think, for Democrats in vulnerable seats. The odds suggest they'll be hammered in November even if the bill doesn't pass so they might as well go all in now and trust to luck or, to look at it in a different way, go out in a blaze of progressive glory.

That's one theory anyway. I suspect, however, that the process has been so agonising and so compromised and so bloody protracted that the spoils of victory are less valuable (in the short, mid-term, analysis anyway) than might have been the case had it passed last year. Correspondingly, the costs of defeat for Democrats are even greater than they would have been had the bill died in 2009. (This also means that logic demands that the Republicans do all they can to kill the damn bill.)

If the bill dies and if the fatal wounds are delivered by the left who, being dumb, insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good then who knows, this whole process may be remembered as the longest, most painfully drawn-out act of hari-kiri in modern American political history.

Whatever happens will not happen quickly, alas. There may be another month (at least!) of this before everyone can, with no small measure of relief, move on to talk about something, anything else. Like Paradise Lost, none ever wished health care longer than it is.

*As always, I take no great position on the merits or otherwise of the proposals, save to say that my own instinctive preferences would be to leave health care reform to the states, not least because I'm generally sceptical that any piece of legislation, far less one as complex as this, can really be crafted on a continent-sized scale. Doubtless there are problems with a federalist approach too, but that's America for you.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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