Two months ago, in the wake of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts, I wrote this:
The election of Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat wasn’t, in and of itself, a great setback. But what was utterly demoralizing was the craven, cowardly, and chaotic way that Democrats on the Hill responded. Suddenly, the entire fate of health-care reform seemed doomed. Barney Frank and a number of liberal Congressmen announced they couldn’t support passing the Senate’s version of the bill. And health-care reform – which is, at this very moment, one single fucking roll-call vote away from passage – seemed more and more to be DOA.
It was a disgusting performance. I’ve been following politics closely for nearly a decade, and this is the most despondent – the most furious – the most ashamed I have ever felt. I voted for these people. I worked to put them there. And they have done worse than fail – they’ve run away before having the chance to fail.
I have to give credit where it’s due: after their collective freak-out, the Democratic leadership picked up the pieces, buckled down, and put it in the hole. Last night, the House passed the Senate’s health-care bill 219-212, and then passed a number of reconciliation changes 220-211. It’s not a perfect bill. But it is a good bill. And it’s the bill we sent them to Washington to pass. The pundits have been calling this the greatest progressive victory since Lyndon B. Johnson passed Medicare in the early-sixties; I suspect it’s greater still.
Given that a vast number of people contributed to the passage of this bill, the debate has, to a remarkable extent, centered around – and been controlled by – distinct legislators. Some of these legislators ended up having little impact on the bill. Check out this graph of Google search traffic for Max Baucus, Olympia Snowe, Harry Reid, Rahm Emanuel, and Bart Stupak:
The peaks on this graph directly correlate with the momentary fame of the connected officials. There was an uptick for Max Baucus (purple) last summer, when health-care reform seemed to be spinning its wheels in his “Gang of Five” talks. It peaked in mid-September, when he released the “America’s Healthy Future Act” – which was widely anticipated but turned out to have little effect on the proceedings.
Olympia Snowe (blue) was once expected to be a pivotal vote on health-care reform, especially after she voted for Baucus’s bill in mid-October; eventually, though, her decision to stick with Republican obstructionism doomed her input to irrelevancy.
Bart Stupak (green) went from being unknown to a household name in November, when he attached an amendment with stricter abortion language to the House Bill. It’s been stripped out in the version that passed last night.
Harry Reid (red) passed the Senate’s bill on Christmas Eve – back when the Democrats still had the filibuster-proof 60 Senators – but his popularity explosion came with Scott Brown in late January.
And Rahm Emanuel has been the focus of no fewer than four profiles in the last few weeks, all detailing his argument – rejected by the President – that health-care reform would be better handled incrementally.
I mention this because, over the last year, there has been a tremendous effort by the press to wrap the narrative of reform around the narrative of a particular person. Baucus as the lone moderate struggling for bipartisanship, Emanuel asthe canny legislator whose advice was ignored.
In the end, though, the only two people who really mattered were Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Obama made the decision – rare for Presidents – to actually spend his political capital, and to stake his Presidency on an issue that was always riskier than it should have been. And Pelosi got him the votes. For whatever reason Pelosi has been vilified by both parties over the years; this more than anything should cement her position as the ablest Speaker in decades. And Obama – well, it’s early yet to judge his Presidency. But he has already reshaped the American political system in a greater way than any President since Franklin Roosevelt.
By all rights the Republican opposition to this effort should kill the party. But the Republican party is not unlike the Terminator: they survived their opposition to Social Security in the ’30s, to Medicare and the Civil Rights Act in the ’60s, and to SCHIP and Clintoncare in the ’90s. They have, in other words, opposed every single attempt to improve the lives of Americans over the last century, and paid very little for it. I don’t think that their opposition will usher in the kind of sweeping electoral victory they predict in November, but neither do I think that they will be seriously punished for their obstructionism.
The health-care reform debate has basically made the career of Ezra Klein. Over its course he’s gone from being a blogger for The American Prospect to being the Washington Post’s premier voice on health-care. Last night, on the eve of the vote, he wrote, “At that point, the decades-long struggle to pass a universal health-care system into law will finish, and the decades-long work of building and improving our system will begin.”