Monday, February 8, 2010

What Now?

New article for Zahraničná politika. Other articles here.

What Now?

On January 19th, 2010, the good people of Massachusetts were voting to elect a US Senator to replace the deceased Ted Kennedy, a Democrat who held the seat since 1962. Ever since the Republican candidate Scott Brown was announced the winner of that election, the Democrats have been in a crisis that is threatening to completely dismantle the young Obama administration.

First some background is due. Prior to this election, the Democrats (in combination with the independent Joe Lieberman) held 60 seats in the Senate, and the Republicans held 40. Because a Republican won the seat, the Democrats lost their 60-vote majority. Now, in most legislative bodies, a 59% majority is still a perfectly good majority to pass a bill. Not so in the US Senate, where the rules require that in order to take a vote on a bill, the debate has to be formally brought to conclusion by 60 or more votes. Therefore, losing the 60th seat amounted to losing the ability to pass anything in the Senate. While Democrats technically still have a majority of seats in the Senate, what matters more is the other 41 seats occupied by Senators that represent 37% of the US population, who can bring the Senate to a halt any time they wish. If you thought that the US was a representative democracy, you might want to rethink that.

There is no area that illustrates better the effects this has had on American politics than healthcare. Prior to the special election, before the Democrats lost their 60th seat in the Senate, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed their version of reform. Like they would with any other bill, after passing their respective versions, the representatives of the two bodies started negotiating a compromise bill that could be put to vote and passed in both chambers of Congress, thus finally enacting health reform, after nearly a year of hearings, negotiations and compromises - and a century of failed attempts. Indeed, when the President set the date for his first State of the Union speech for January 27th, 2010, it was commonly expected that he will list health reform as one of his first year accomplishments.

The situation changed dramatically on January 19th when a Republican won the Massachusetts senate seat. The implications of this loss quickly reverberated throughout DC. On a practical level, the loss of the 60 vote supermajority meant that the standard route that everyone envisioned prior to the election - passing a compromise bill in both chambers - was no longer a viable option, since the Democrats were now one vote short of the necessary supermajority in the Senate. As a result, the only option to still pass reform was for the House to simply adopt the bill already passed by the Senate prior to the special election. (Remember, as long as both chambers of US Congress pass the same legislation, it becomes law.) With a Democratic majority in the House and a simple majority required to pass a measure, one might think that concluding this saga would be a breeze.

However, what happened in Massachusetts had a much more profound impact than simply losing a seat in the Senate. With a solidly Democratic state like Massachusetts suddenly voting Republican, the narrative that quickly developed in the media was that the election in Massachusetts was basically a litmus test for Obama, his administration and the Democrats at large. The failure of a Democrat to secure the seat despite hugely favorable position in the polls just a few weeks prior to the election was being interpreted by many as a sign of meaningful dissatisfaction in the electorate. Even more specifically to healthcare, many commentators insisted that popular opposition to the current reform effort occurring in the Congress was behind the downfall of the Democratic candidate. Whether or not these theories have any truth to them, it is understandable that all Democrats in the Congress must have asked themselves what this means for them and their prospects during the midterm elections in November. After the loss in Massachusetts, which no one saw coming, are they risking their reelection by voting for the health bill? Something along these lines must have been happening, because by January 21st, the speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared that she doesn't have the votes to pass the Senate bill.

This chain of events clearly had an effect on Obama's State of the Union speech. Instead of taking a victory lap for passing health reform, Obama felt it necessary to urge the legislators: "Do not walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people." Certainly, these are not words of someone confident in the imminent passage of the bill; on the other hand, some optimists in the pro-reform crowd might have rejoiced: he still cares about reform, despite what happened in Massachusetts! Clearly, Obama did not drop the issue entirely; however, the fact that he spent barely 5 minutes in the second half of his 69 minute speech on something that he and the Congress spent a whole year deliberating would suggest that he would rather not risk being remembered as the president who went down in flames in his first term due to his aggressive insistence on health reform. Instead, Obama used the speech to outline new priorities - the economy, financial sector reform, and the deficit.

At this point, many have written off health reform as dead. The irony of the situation is that not many envisioned the process getting this close - and its path certainly was not easy. After the August recess and a wave of attacks from all sides this column all but predicted its failure. Which is why after passing through both chambers of the Congress, it seemed all but inevitable and very few could see what would stop its momentum - until that fatal election in Massachusetts.
So what does this all mean for Obama, the administration and Democrats generally? On the one hand, it is hard to make a bulletproof argument that the Democrats should keep on marching fearlessly without a second thought about public preferences - an arrogance that was the staple of the last two administrations. On the other hand, it is not exactly obvious that letting health reform fail will save them from the anger that is brewing in the American public and that was at least part of the reason for the Democratic loss in Massachusetts. Yes, health reform has become less popular - a quick look at the polls can prove that ( Still, will simply reversing course on health care be the saving grace for the Democrats? Unlikely. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling shows that the Democrats' chances at the midterms are not necessary better if reform fails - in fact, fewer people are likely to vote Democrat if reform fails. It seems that whatever damage health care is doing to the Democrats has already been done and retreating from it now can only do more damage. As Jonathan Cohn at the New Republic pointed out, letting reform die would have a threefold effect: first, it will discredit the party in the eyes of those who supported the effort - their base; second, it won't prevent the Republicans from campaigning against them as supporters of reform (they voted for it once before!) - and flip-floppers (they keep changing their minds!), and third, it will rob them of the chance to point to one big accomplishment. The last piece is the most critical one, not only in a symbolic sense (passing bills means "getting things done") but also in a practical sense, that is, there were enough concrete positive measures that would become effective immediately and be perceive positively. And so, even if the public is now riled up against reform, once they started experiencing its early benefits, they would quite possibly appreciate it.

Thinking about the current situation more broadly, if the result of the special election is the failure of health care, I deeply worry about the next 3 years and the ability of this administration to do anything at a time when crucial reforms are desperately needed in America. For if this one road block has the power to create such paralysis among the Democrats that they are not able to take the roads that are still widely open to them to deliver on a key domestic priority, what are their chances to tackle their next agenda items that are just as important yet controversial, like the economy, financial sector reform, climate change? And more importantly, if they fail on this one occasion, why should they deserve to even have the chance to try? After all, how can the country and indeed the whole world face the challenges of the post-Great Recession era with an impotent US government? My message is simple: wake up, Democrats, or die.

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