EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: [email protected], or phone 800-708-7311, ext. 246.
Harry Reid can rightly claim to be making history.
If he passes health-care reform, he’ll depend on a series of historic “firsts.” It’d be the first time Congress had passed a major new entitlement program without bipartisan support; it’d be the first time it passed such a program without popular support; and the first time it passed such a program without knowing or particularly caring what’s in it.
John McCain complained last week that he had no idea what constituted the highly touted backroom deal that Reid sent to the Congressional Budget Office for evaluation. The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin, reassured McCain that he didn’t know, either. This is bipartisanship Harry Reid style — nontransparency for everyone.
Reid reportedly proposed giving the uninsured aged 55–65 entrée into Medicare, a departure from the program’s long-standing limit to retirees age 65 and older. This is a radical change that didn’t have a full and frank airing among senators, let alone a committee hearing. Reid wanted the provisions of the deal kept secret because — as recounted by Joe Lieberman — he thought they’d be “mauled” if made public. Who needs openness and legislative details when you’re remaking one-sixth of the economy?
This isn’t the behavior of a self-confident majority secure in the knowledge that history is on its side. In fact, it’s panicked, weasely, and willfully careless. The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote of the “paranoid style” in American politics. Obama Democrats have perfected the “impatient style.” Reid’s latest exertions fit the pattern of a headlong rush to a slapdash social democracy, justified by whatever arguments happen to be at hand and effected by whatever means necessary.
Reid acts like a hunted man for good reason. The RealClearPolitics average has 53.5 percent opposed to the Democrats’ health-care plan and 37.7 favoring it. A CNN poll last week found the public against it by a nearly 2–1 margin. The numbers have gotten worse as the Senate has debated the measure in all its varied splendor — the tax hikes, the Medicare cuts, the abortion funding. Reid is like the tormented narrator of Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” With every tick of the clock, a gigantic blade promising doom swings nearer.
It’s astonishing that with 60 votes in the Senate and an 81-vote majority in the House, Democrats have still managed to push the health bill to the point of failure. When significant headwinds developed in August, the prudent play was obvious — scale the bill back, pick off a few Republicans, and settle for three-fourths or less of a loaf. They couldn’t bring themselves to do it, preferring to work with duct tape and bailing wire to try to hold together an unwieldy bill that isn’t paid for and doesn’t reduce costs as advertised.
Reid’s struggle getting to 60 makes some liberals fear for their country. They lament that America has become “ungovernable.” In other words, it isn’t putty in their grasping little hands. Unfortunately for them, the founders created a balky system resistant to precipitate change. It is designed to frustrate ideologically drunken (and perhaps temporary) majorities insistent on passing sweeping, unpopular legislation. Reid’s difficulty is exactly the way James Madison would have wanted it.
If the health-care bill is necessary and wise, it will withstand a temporary defeat. Democrats could campaign on it around the country next year. They could rebuild public support, turning around the polls. They could enhance their majority in the House and the Senate, bringing more Democrats to Washington determined to pass it. That’s how you usually pass historic legislation in a system naturally inclined to the status quo.
But Reid knows long-term persuasion isn’t an option. As his approval rating sags below 40 percent back in Nevada, even he might not be returning to Washington after 2010. Every day, every hour matters in the now-or-never calculus of Democrats who already feel their moment slipping agonizingly away.