Dems have only themselves to blame
By: John Fortier
January 21, 2010
Democrats owe Joe Lieberman an apology. Not that he should expect one.
He and other Senate moderates have been reviled by the left during the health care debate. But if someone had listened more carefully to them, Democrats might already have passed health care reform and incoming GOP Sen. Scott Brown would not be driving to Washington in his pickup truck.
Moderates were always the key to getting health care reform done. For many months, the path to passing health care was clear. Democrats would have to accept most of what Sens. Lieberman (I-Conn.), Bayh, Landrieu, Lincoln, Baucus, Conrad, Carper, both Nelsons and other moderate Senate Democrats wanted. And realistically, they should have secured the votes of moderate Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, too.
Democrats had numerous chances to make a deal with moderates but continued to hold out in the belief that something more progressive might prevail.
The date that should stick in everyone’s head is Oct. 13, nearly two months before Democrat Martha Coakley won her primary in Massachusetts and when no one had even heard of Brown. Oct. 13 was the day the Senate Finance Committee voted 14-9 for a health care reform package. That vote won the support of a number of influential moderate Democrats and also Snowe. With only a small bit of tweaking, this approach might have brought on other Democratic moderates not on the committee and Collins, Snowe’s Maine colleague.
Democrats should have taken that deal and run. It would have given Democrats 80 percent of what they were looking for, and it would have been a major change of policy in a Democratic direction, at a time when health care reform still polled reasonably well.
But what followed was an endless set of negotiations to reflect more progressive concerns. Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to merge the Finance Committee’s bill with the more liberal Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee version fed liberal hopes for a robust public option. Even when the final Senate bill moved closer to Senate moderates’ preferences (although losing Snowe’s vote), the House, too, wanted to renegotiate the deal, to reflect its progressive priorities.
The result was three months of messy public debate within the Democratic Party.
To give President Barack Obama credit, in negotiations with congressional leaders, he has been the voice in favor of cutting a deal and accepting moderates’ wishes. He questioned Reid’s decision to fight for a more progressive bill rather than coalesce around the more moderate Finance Committee approach.
But Obama also deserves some blame. He did not put his foot down and insist on cutting a compromise deal early in the process. Nor did Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Majority Leader Reid. Whatever you think of President George W. Bush, he understood how to cut a deal. He had smaller congressional majorities but followed a formula of having the House pass a bill close to his priorities quickly and then negotiate one deal with a few key Senate moderates.
Even Democrats’ slow approach might have yielded a health care reform bill but for the fact that a special election in Massachusetts was scheduled for Jan. 19 and that the phenomenon that is Brown took advantage of the brewing discontent about health care, the economy and other issues.
The importance of his victory should not be underestimated. Even in Democratic Massachusetts, Brown tapped into voters’ worries that health care was too much change, too expensive and taking up legislative time that should have been dealing with more immediate economic problems.
Yet even after this political sea change, Democrats are still ignoring their moderate members. Many liberals continue to hold out for a more progressive approach through delaying seating Brown (not going to happen) or using reconciliation to pass a more comprehensive bill with only 51 votes in the Senate.
Even the more pragmatic president and Democratic leaders like Steny Hoyer favor the House passing the Senate’s version of health care, getting it done quickly and with a better deal than one could get with only 59 Democrats in the Senate.
But the Brown victory has shaken the political earth. What might have been acceptable ground for moderates to stand on a month ago has crumbled away.
Today, leaders will find that many moderate Democrats would rather drop health care reform altogether than be seen as shoving health care down the throats of an electorate that just sent a strong message to Washington in opposition.
Substantial health care reform is effectively dead — not because Republicans oppose it but because Democratic moderates will see the prospect of quick passage in the face of voter discontent as political suicide in the fall.
And Lieberman can say to his critics: “I told you so.”
John Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.