Alex Massie

The Search for 60

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Whither health care reform and, thus, whither Barack Obama? First things first: it's not dead yet. I make no judgement on whether it should be killed or not even though, like others, all my

prejudices

instincts tell me it is indeed a monstrous frankensausage. But I do suspect that the sudden re-emergence of the liberal-left arguing that, Joe Lieberman or no Sanctimonious Joe, the Senate version of the bill should die, is very useful for the White House. Apart from anything else, it grants Obama the chance to advance liberal ends by centrist means or, at least, under the cover of centrist rhetoric. That's his form of triangulation. This is less a question of Congressional arithmetic than helping rehabilitate HCR in terms of public opinion.

As a regular correspondent argues this really is, for Democrats, potentially their biggest legislative victory in more than 20 years:

What's going on is incredibly disappointing, but I think there has to be some perspective to temper that disappointment.  With all the contortions going on in the Senate the final product will look a lot like what the Senate Finance Committee passed this fall. And here's what we already know about that bill - it will end up lowering premiums by 10% from what they would be, it will save $300 billion, and it will cover 93% of Americans.  That's really an incredible victory.

Secondly, I think the last 23 years of not passing any meaningful legislation (1986 Tax Act, 18 years if you count the 1991 Clean Air Act) has really made the American people, the media, and politicians forget a) how truly sclerotic and dysfunctional Congress is; and b) how complicated the actual legislative process can become.  So all this teeth gnashing of disgust really masks an uninformed naïveté about the political process.

We are reforming how 20% of the American economy functions, realistically it was never going to happen with one piece of legislation. I think there has been other meaningful legislation - welfare reform and NAFTA being obvious contenders - but these points still have a good deal of merit.

It's sometimes forgotten that, while he served in the Senate only briefly, Obama arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with first-hand experience of how difficult it is to pass meaningful, sweeping legislation even when you have a healthy majority in the House and, notionally, a filibuster-proof advantage in the Senate. No wonder he has staffed his administration with Congressional veterans (Biden and, of course, Rahm Emanuel). And with a massive stimulus package passed, HCR still alive and climate change legislation still to come you can see why he wanted that emphasis.

All this also shows, mind you, the difference between the liberal-left and right-wing conservatives. The latter are just as ambitious but they do not labour under the misapprehension that other people secretly agree with them or that their positions are more popular than they seem to be. They may not be happy about an incrementalist approach but, deep down, they know that's the way it is and perhaps the way it has to be if conservative goals are to be advanced. Even then they frequently worry about being betrayed.

The left, however, persists with its delusion that if only everyone came to their senses then everyone would be on the liberal left and we'd all be happy and so on. They're rather like all those Irish Republicans who didn't believe Ulster Unionists really considered themselves British and so couldn't begin to understand why anyone might disagree with the Republican position.

And so, for the American liberal-left, when an overwhelming, crushing victory can't be achieved immediately it's time to throw everything away and enjoy the comfort of total defeat than accept anything as dishonourable as a compromised victory. Perhaps this helps explain why the conservative movement has enjoyed more victories than the left in recent decades. (Of course, there are also more conservatives than liberals but that's a different matter again.)

Because, as Kevin Drum says, if HCR is killed now it's not coming back anytime soon. In fact it will be gone for many years. And if HCR fails then so does much of the Obama administration's first-term agenda. With all that means for everything else...

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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