Health-Care Reform a Political Liability for Democrats

President Obama, his White House inner circle and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among others, believe that passing a health-care bill, even the one being sutured together on the Hill right now, is better for the country and for the Democratic Party than no bill at all. I don't know enough about health-care economics to make a judgment about the social policy, but as a piece of politics, the legislation has become a disaster. And that is true whether or not the Republicans manage to pull off an upset win in the Massachusetts Senate race this week.

It's hard to see enough voters ardently for the bill at this point. Seniors are afraid of it; grassroots activists view it as a sellout; independents are upset at the process that produced it, and dubious about whether it will make the system more efficient; union members, despite recent changes to protect them from an excise tax on their health plans, may still harbor doubts. Democrats remain supportive, but fear that there won't be a political upside, since many of the bill's most direct beneficiaries—the uninsured—are in a low-vote-turnout category: young, Hispanic, legal immigrant (but not yet voting citizen), or all three.

Politically, the bill has become what the late historian Barbara Tuchman called a "march of folly." Sometimes, she wrote, political or military leaders pursue strategies even after they are faced with incontrovertible evidence that their course will lead to ruin. Sticking to their original decision becomes a matter of faith, not reason.

When Democrats glumly huddled with Obama late last week to hear his pep talk about the bill, a number of them—I can't say how many—were privately hoping that the whole thing would implode. But they didn't dare say it.  "Half the caucus wishes the bill would go away at this point," said one liberal Democrat, who insisted on anonymity because he didn't want to seem disloyal.

In Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown focused on independent voters; nationwide, they have become skeptical of the Democrats’ health care bill —opposing it 54-39 percent.   Independent voters had hoped for a bipartisan process, and they tend to focus on budget deficits as a key concern. They're evidently not convinced that the bill will save money. Seniors, who already have Medicare, are wary of the changes they've heard about, and, by at least a 42-32 percent plurality, approve the bill.  

Bloggers and activists, from Markos Moulitsas to Jane Hamsher have led opposition to the bill from the left. Liberal opposition accounts for the overall weak support for a bill. According to Gallup, votes support passage of a bill by a 49-46 percent margin, but if "leaners" are removed only 37 percent of voters want their representatives to vote for the bill.

Democrats in Congress are fully aware of all of these numbers, but they are marching ahead anyway. In the Trojan War, Tuchman wrote, the leaders of Troy knew that they were making a mistake when they wheeled that horse into their besieged city, but they did it anyway. We'll see what happens this fall.

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