So here's how I see the political equation around health care today:
- Democrats control the White House and both legislative chambers.
- Voters correctly conclude that this makes the party accountable for federal policy and governance.
- Despite counting 60 senators in their caucus, the Democrats don't have 60 votes for everything the president sends their way.
- This means there will have to be compromise within the party to get a health-care reform package out of the Senate.
- While I'm sure there are plenty of sane Republicans out there who oppose Obama's half-measure health-care reform on pure conservative principle, the party's public campaign against the package isn't even about health care. It's about playing up dark fantasies of murderous socialist oppression being unleashed against white conservative Christian people by the shadowy armies of some terrible communist/Satanist/Nazi/minority/hippie/gay/French conspiracy.
- Consequently, the goal of achieving traditional bipartatisanship on this health-care package is really just kind of a nice thought. As Paul Krugman said, these people can't be appeased.
So what do you do if you're the Democrats?
Well, the first thing you have to do is what they've been doing: make sure that you're in dialog with any Republican senators who are willing to act in good faith as grown-up partners in running the federal government. The best Democratic win on health care is one that preserves their core values and demonstrates a willingness to be inclusive. You'd think that would be easy, but it isn't.
Their next-best win is the more likely one. You recognize, as a party, that you've got to deliver the best package that you can get WITH ONLY DEMOCRATIC VOTES. And the tricky part here is, if you can't count on any crossovers, you're really giving an inordinate amount of clout to the conservatives in your own party.
That's a pretty standard negotiation. You work from the ends to the sticking points of each side, and then you twist arms and call in favors and dig up dirt and posture and do all the things that people do when they know they need to make a deal and their bottom-line positions aren't yet in accordance. Then you get something done and everyone declares victory.
Except for the GOP. By opting out of the constructive process, Republicans will be gambling everything on life getting worse in America by November 2010.
As others have noted before, there's something weird about Obama's repeated insistence on reaching out to Republicans who recoil from his touch. It doesn't scan as savvy.
But here's why I think it matters. Obama's subtext mandate in 2008 was a promise to improve the way Washington works. Politicos and journalists don't believe that to be a "real" promise, but Obama seems to take the mission seriously. I suspect many of his supporters do, too.
The problem most of us have is that when we imagine "post-partisan," all we can really come up with is a more civil form of bi-partisanship. There's nothing transformative about that idea, and there's nothing about cooperation on individual votes that changes the basic geometry of America's political infrastructure.
But perhaps fundamentally realigning American democracy into a healthier "post-partisan" system will require an interim step, and perhaps we're already witnessing it. If the GOP keeps pandering to its paranoid fringe, all the people of good faith (or even relatively good faith) within the GOP will have to move into the Democratic Party in order to have an effective voice.
Arlen Specter isn't a Democrat. He's just a serious adult who was left in the cold by a Republican Party that has decided to commit suicide rather than adapt its conservative principles to a complex, changing world. The GOP, which once boasted giants like Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Ike Eisenhower is now the party of Birthers and Deathers and Glenn Beck. It's the party of people who don't want evolution taught in public schools, and here's the thing: It's pretty obvious that Americans who can't cope emotionally with basic principles of 19th century science aren't thriving in the new information economy. If I learned anything on Nov. 4, it's that young voters have noticed this, and they really don't want to hang around with those overwrought windbags.
So here's what seems likely to me, and when I'm wrong about some or all of it, you're free to remind me in comments later. I'm no fortune teller (I said Michael Vick would sign with the Rams -- D'OH!). I'm just trying to think through some ideas in public.
- Obama will get some degree of health care reform passed this fall.
- I have no idea what it will look like.
- Because the current system is such a train wreck, whatever half-measures the Democrats pass will be better than what we have now.
- The reform bill will pass without Republican support, and possibly without a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate.
- Republicans will continue to gear their public message toward gains in the 2010 mid-terms, essentially ceding every success to the Democrats and banking their party's future on a weak economy and public backlash against "Obamacare."
One question? What if Americans wind up kinda liking it? What if, after this extended GOP freak-out about "Death Panels" and socialism, the reality of health-care reform turns out to be less anxiety, greater access and lower costs? If the GOP turns the mid-terms into a referendum on Obama-ism and voters say they kinda like it, what does that portend for the Republican Party?
In other words, what if the GOP's dysfunctional political thinking is creating Obama's post-partisan America by removing the party as a reasonable alternative? Until serious conservatives find a way to confront the wingnut right effectively, the Republican Party will struggle as a meaningful participant in American democracy.
Would that be a permanent situation? Are we on the verge of becoming a one-party state? Of course not. But it does mean a period in which all the constructive participants in government could be united by nominal party affiliation, if not ideology. That could be good for the country, if only because the isolation of the fringe right could allow the breaking of The Republican Noise Machine and the beginning of a better cycle in American politics.
Such a period would likely be short lived, and no doubt many sensible conservatives would remain in the GOP out of loyalty, giving the party a foundation for its rebirth under TBD leadership. But wouldn't it be nice if the post-partisan re-imagining of Washington that Obama promised on the stump turned out to be his greatest legacy?
(Disclosure: I want socialized medicine, and I want it so badly I don't even mind using the poisoned term for it. Letting corporations run health care as a for-profit business is, IMHO, absurdly misguided. I enjoyed the government-run health care I got from the Army, and I have no doubt that our free enterprise culture will provide additional coverage and boutique care for anyone who wants and can afford it.)