Unhealthy Debate

First, let me make it clear: I have not read either the Senate or House health care bills, nor do I care to do so. The purpose of this essay is to reflect on the debate and what it means about Congressional Democrats.

From President Obama's speech to Congress on September 9, 2009: "And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have."

Sounds good. But there are just two items wrong. The first is that the House Rules Committee has decided that there can be no amendments from the floor, so there is no possibility that Republicans in the House can "work together." They have been relegated to the position of spectators who can vote on the final bill if or when it comes to a vote. A few will be able to make 2 minutes speeches in committee, but that's about the limit of their participation. The second reason that blaming Republicans for failing to participate is that Republican support is totally unnecessary. Democrats have a 256 to 178 advantage in the House and a 59 to 41 advantage in the Senate. Why don't the Democrats just pass the darn thing and be done with it? With a 78 vote majority in the House and a 18 majority in the Senate, Republican support or opposition is immaterial.

The problem is that there is major opposition to the bill within the Democratic party. Moderates (both Democratic and Republican) don't much like the bills as currently formulated. Unfortunately for the people of the United States, the leadership of both parties is from the extreme end of the party -- Democrats from the liberal end, Republicans from the conservative end. The majority of American voters call themselves moderate, but they aren't represented that way in Congress.

In primary elections, the moderates are split about half-and-half between Democrats and Republicans. With only half of the moderates to counterbalance the liberal Democrats, the liberals tend to win majorities far greater than their number among the total electorate would suggest. Ditto for Republican conservatives.

President Obama is in actuality upset with the moderate Democrats whom he was counting on to fall in line, or to be bullied into submission. But he won't win any friends in the Democratic party by saying that, so he attacks the powerless Republicans and hopes the moderate Democrats get the message.

The Republicans, knowing their position in Congress is hopeless, have taken to the streets. Their strategy isn't to intimidate President Obama or even to have a public referendum on the issue. The goal of hitting the streets is to keep the pressure on the moderates. Virtually all of the moderates come from districts that swing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans from election to election. If the public is significantly opposed to the health care bill, their reelection chances next year take a big hit.

So, while the moderate Democrats don't particularly like the pressure from their own party, they fear being voted out of office even more. As long as the moderate Democrats feel that voting for health care reform will cause them to lose their next election, there is little chance the bill will pass. So far, the moderate Democrats have kept their heads down, trying to avoid the fray. But if the Republicans suddenly stopped their public campaign, those Democrats would suddenly have to make some very difficult and public decisions. The public debate (if it can be called that), with all its lies, half-truths and exaggerated claims is exactly what the moderate Democrats need.

So, in a strange way, the Republicans have forced the administration and liberal Democratic leadership to cooperate and there may well be a compromise bill that both moderate Democrats and Republicans can support. But make no mistake, it won't be because the Republicans suddenly got civil and decided to participate in the legislative process. It will be because the Democrats couldn't get their own to fall in line without some of the major changes that the Republicans have been clamoring for.

September 13, 2009