A Losing Strategy

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, March 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Losing Strategy


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter

The GOP will run against health care.

As if liberals need more motivation to push health- care reform, Rush Limbaugh, in a profoundly patriotic move, said last week he'll be "leaving the country" if health care passes. VOTE YES ON REFORM. SEND RUSH PACKING! It's a bumper sticker with the virtue of no reference to "cost curves" or pre-existing conditions.

Progressives are so dispirited--and, like the rest of the country, so sick of talking about sick people--that they can't wrap their heads around the reality that this is the Big One, the Super Bowl, for all the marbles. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner can scowl, but Republicans are now nearly irrelevant to the process. The only real question is if Democrats are in the mood to slit their own throats. The bill is complex, but the politics are simple: if health care doesn't pass this spring, Obama's domestic presidency is finished. The Democratic Party will be, to borrow a phrase from Nixon, a "helpless, pitiful giant." By contrast, if the bill gets signed, Republicans are setting themselves up for a "repeal the bill" campaign that will likely backfire in November's midterm elections. That's eight months away, but if the bill passes I'd bet on the GOP winning only a few new seats.

This is Politics 101, a class that many Democrats apparently flunked. The House Democrats who voted for the bill at the end of 2009 have no choice but to vote for it again if they have any clue as to what's in their political self-interest; the he-was-for-it-before-he-was-against-it ads write themselves. And the more conservative Blue Dog Democrats who voted against it need to understand that no matter how toxic health care is in their districts right now, things will be a lot worse if they have to run under the banner of a failed president. Voters won't reward them for being fake Republicans--they'll vote for the real ones instead.

The fate of the bill now rests mostly with the House. (The 51 votes in the Senate needed for reconciliation won't be a problem, but procedural hassles lie ahead; Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin is about to become one of the most powerful people in Washington.) So I'd like to single out the "Suicide Six": Democrats--besides abortion foes like Bart Stupak--from districts Obama carried who are threatening to withhold their votes and blow up everything.

Eliot Engel--a Ben Nelson wannabe, it appears--is holding out for New York to be "treated fairly. …

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