Alex Massie

Super Bill Sunday

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So this is it. The long international nightmare (for anyone who follows American politics and wishes the conversation could move on to something, anything, other than health care) is finally coming to an end. It looks as though there will be a vote in the House on health care reform on Sunday. The process has been exhausting and damaged the President and Congress but, thanks be to god, it's nearly over. One way or the other.

Since Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts there's been much talk (on both sides of the Atlantic - see this Simon Heffer column for instance) that the Obama presidency is all but over. Already. This always struck me as being absurdly premature.

True, the bill is unpopular and true too that the reasons for its unpopularity owe something to both the process and the substance of the thing. But Congress passes bad bills all the time (Hello Farm Bill! Hello Unfunded Medicare Expansion!) and yet America keeps churning on.

This bill won't be popular by November's mid-terms and it may not be popular by 2012 either but without it Democrats are, if not bereft of anything to campaign on, then certainly weakened. Passing this "turkey" (as one aide calls it) is simply better than not passing it. We've now reached the stage, on the Democratic side of the aisle, where "like AIG this thing is too big to fail."

And let's put it into some perspective. If you're a Democrat, passing this bill, imperfect as it may be, could be the biggest progressive political achievement since the Johnson administration. When push comes to shove, that's a tough thing to vote against. Not least because you'd also be voting to cripple your own party's President. Because if HCR falls then it's hard to see what chance any other parts of the Democratic agenda are going to have. As I said the other day, the White House is pot-committed and now the House has gone all-in too.

Yes, it's evidence of how parlous the situation has become that Democrats are having to play the "Save Obama" card. But if this doesn't pass now it's not coming back in 2011 or 2013 or for many years to come and, regardless of individual cricumstances, the collective consequences of failure are terrible for Democrats. So I suspect this is more or less correct:

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of Obama’s closest allies in the health reform push, was more than willing to lay out a post-health-care doomsday scenario for Democrats and Obama should they fail.

“The first risk [of a health care defeat] is that he loses the reelect,” she said. “I think the risk to Congress is that his approval rating goes so low, he does not have enough heft to lift other important things we want to work on. ... So this is a gut check. He’s got so much to lose by continuing to push for something that’s not going to be immediately popular. It’s not going to be popular by November; it’s not going to be popular by November of 2012. It’ll be popular 10 years from now.”

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has been telling Democratic fence sitters they are “deluding themselves” if they think Obama’s loss of prestige following a defeat won’t hurt them.

“There are serious implications of losing on President Obama’s ability to be effective for the rest of his three years in office,” Waxman told POLITICO. “That’s a message [undecided members] need to hear. If they don’t think that affects them if they are reelected, they are burying their heads in the sand.”

Passing the bill doesn't mean Democrats won't suffer losses in the mid-terms, but it will at least do something to encourage Democratic supporters that this is a presidency about which they should remain enthused. At least some of the fall in Obama's ratings lately has been due to liberal disenchantment. The base isn't enough to win, but it's tough to win without it too.

There may well be substantive reasons for Democrats to vote No, there are very few political* reasons for doing so. And politics tends to win these battles.

Still, who knows, perhaps Pelosi can't get to 216 votes. If that happens and the bill falls then, well, Welcome to the Meltdown.

*Some Democrats in basically-Republican districts are the exception.


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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