(Wrote this last week for Sunday NOW. Enjoy!)
Wow! After decades of abortive efforts and more than a year of some of the most vicious political fighting (and infighting) in recent memory, President Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled American Congress finally passed a huge health insurance reform bill — probably the biggest piece of social legislation since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Liberals are, of course, cynical and grumbling about the bill’s imperfections, and some of that is deserved. But let’s just take a moment here to dwell on what a massive political achievement this is, to pass healthcare reform — a goal that has eluded Democratic presidents since Roosevelt — over complete conservative opposition and despite the incredibly factious nature of the Democratic Party. In normal times that would be enough to reserve Obama a nice chunk of the next Mount Rushmore, but of course we have more troubles and we expect Obama to solve them all.
It took a while, but I am finally convinced of President Obama’s skills as a political operative in the legislative sphere (his electoral campaign acumen was already undeniable). I mean, for months it seemed like he was barely trying, and Congress floundered until the bill was nearly dead. Then a few weeks ago he, like, glances up from the best-selling memoir he was writing or whatever, sighs, and says “Well, I guess I better do something about this.” Hardly a month and a half later and — voila! — the bill is law. He had help of course — Nancy Pelosi turned out to be one of the most viciously effective Speakers of the House in ages — but the difference between Obama Contemplating The Many Weighty Problems Of The World and Obama Fighting To Get What He Wants is awesome, terrifying to behold.
And the conservatives, the Republican party? They went all-in on blocking the bill, hoping to prove the Democrats incapable of governing and cripple Obama’s presidency. And they lost. They dug in every one of their gnarled black claws, became the Party of No, and embraced an increasingly pathological anti-government movement, and still they lost. Even if, as is likely, they make some gains House and Senate in the upcoming midterm elections, this is a huge blow that leaves them no clear strategy going forward. Early murmurings indicate that they are going to go with the dangerous but at least consistent strategy of promising to repeal healthcare reform as soon as they are returned to power.
I’m of two minds when it comes to the GOP’s strategy of running for the next few years (or at least in November) on “repeal.” On the one hand I’m all for it, because I think it is a losing strategy. If politics is a sport, I want my team (the Democrats) to win, especially in the presidential elections of 2012, and this is far more likely if the conservatives are clinging to perverse political fantasies like rolling back a great deal of common sense reform. The repeal strategy might even work in the upcoming November midterm elections, but that’s all shadow play. Even if the Republics retook both houses of the American legislature, they couldn’t pass a repeal over Obama’s veto. So to follow through on their repeal promises, the GOP has to win the White House in 2012, and this is where it gets truly delicious.
First, it is hard to say who will be running this early on, but there are two big names that people are looking to as potential Republican presidential candidates: Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. The repeal platform will be a tough one for Romney to sell, as he passed very similar healthcare legislation at the state level as Governor of Massachusetts. Explaining why Obamacare is evil but Romneycare is not so bad will involve nuances traditionally lost on the GOP’s rabid right-wing base. So call this a pretty serious point towards Palin getting the Republican nomination (assuming she is actually running for president, and not just letting her fans think she is so she can jet around the country giving fifty-thousand dollar speeches). This is good for me, because while Palin might be able to win her party’s nomination, I think there is no way she could possibly win the presidency. And more importantly, I can think of few political sporting events more entertaining than watching Sarah Palin, with her trusty high school diploma, debate President Barack Obama, a former college professor and still one of the world’s premier charismatics.
The other problem with the repeal platform is that it is likely going to get weaker and weaker as time goes on. Republican politicians and pundits have spent the last year screaming, at the urging of their base, that passing healthcare reform will be the death of America, that it will send us tumbling over the brink into the acid-hot sulphurs of fascio-communist dystopia. But every month that goes by without America being visibly destroyed leeches credibility from this claim. By November 2012 a good chunk of the bill will have gone into effect, and a lot of currently sceptical people may have decided that some of these provisions aren’t so bad. I call the repeal strategy “painting yourself into a corner with toxic waste.”
My other thought on the GOP’s big lose and their promises to run on appeal is that, as much as I disagree with the Republicans ideologically, and despise many of them personally, and think their more vocal supporters represent the very worst tendencies in America, I still wouldn’t mind getting their help, you know, governing. They are, after all, half the political establishment, representing about half the country, and — even if they are out of power at the moment — they are one side of the coin that, for better or worse, has been flipping back and forth every couple years for over a century. Surely they must have some good ideas, buried deep beneath the layers of racism, homophobia, corporate greed, and fake folksy charm. Of course, a few of American senators and congressmen really do have souls as black as Satan’s nipples (looking at you, Joe Lieberman), but most of the time civil service and legislative politics is a hard gig to stomach if you don’t have at least a passing interest in the dry details of public policy. Surely they must have something to contribute. In fact, I know they do, because even though the healthcare bill passed without a single Republican vote (a worrying event that has no parallel in American political history), it did pass with over two hundred Republican amendments.
What can the Republicans do? I guess they can just drop it: stop talking about healthcare, stop talking about repeal. Just pretend it never happened and let it fade from their agendas and the voters’ memories. It won’t exactly feel like saving face, but it won’t exactly be owning up their mistakes, either. They can even run on the merits of their ideas, once they start having them again.
So the GOP missed out on their chance to truly influence one of the largest pieces of social legislation in decades, fine, I’m cool with that. But it is going to get pretty tedious if the Democrats have to pass every little thing over screaming Republican opposition. The budget reconciliation manoeuvre doesn’t work for everything. So please, GOP, come in from the cold. I’m sure President Obama would love to work all bipartisanly with you. Whatever warped fantasies of revolution the Tea Party folks have infected you with, stop betting that you can bankrupt American politics and then build your palace from the rubble. If you quit putting winning ahead of making a difference, it won’t hurt so much when you lose.