Monday, March 22, 2010

Victory! With an assist from... Scott Brown?

Well, it took way longer than it should have. It was a messy, arduous, endless process. But, at the end of the day, what will probably be the greatest social legislation of my lifetime will be signed into law by President Obama tomorrow.


Had the bill failed, it would have proven that Congress and the Democratic party were so dysfunctional that they couldn't enact their agenda even with overwhelming majorities. All the caricatures about Democratic fecklessness would have felt eerily true. Obama would have probably taken a page from Bill Clinton and spent the next three years putting out small fires and following a very incrementalist approach.

Moreover, the Republicans would be riding the wave of their own political moxie. They would have bluffed their way out of what should by all reasonable accounts have been considered an unplayable hand. It would have been a huge victory for them.

Thankfully, we were spared all of that. And I think that the Democrats actually owe some thanks to the man who almost torpedoed the effort: Scott Brown.

By the time Brown was elected, the plan (and to a certain extent, the Obama presidency) was flailing. Some of the provisions of the healthcare bill (particularly Ben Nelson's Nebraska kickback) had left an extremely unsavory taste in the public's mouth. Some on the left were grumpily insisting that it would be better to vote it down and get a single-payer system. And the right was gaining momentum by saying that Obama was out of touch.

Yes, healthcare probably would have passed. But nobody would have felt good about it.

But now everybody suddenly feels great about it. Why?

Well, for a few reasons, I think.

The Brown victory definitely focused the mind of the administration. Instead of taking a hands off approach, the White House knew they had to be proactive. They had to change the public's mind and it would take a lot of work. Suddenly you have Obama going through policy details with his opponents and shooting down the GOP's more ridiculous suggestions. (And, in the process, taking much of the zing out of their biggest lies.)

Moreover, the left realized that the electoral tide was turning against them. Anyone with any brains realized they'd never get a chance like this again, and that it was better to just fall into line and get this thing passed. It's one thing to hold out for a better deal when one is still possible. It's another to lose a sure thing. (And a Massachusetts senate seat is as close to a sure thing as the Democratic party gets. Suddenly, anything looked possible.)

And, fortunately, by the time Brown was elected the legislative die had pretty much already been cast. There was no real hurdles that the Republicans could throw up that could stop this legislation, unless Democrats decided to become complicit in their own suicide.

It almost worked.

The Republicans scared the ever living shit out of Democrats. Many arms had to be twisted and spines stiffened. And, until yesterday, everybody was holding their breath. (When Stupak signed on and the bill was pretty much assured passage, my father and I opened up a bottle of champagne -- much to my mother's horror. She thought that we were jinxing it. Knowing past Democratic behavior, it was not an unreasonable fear.)

But the most interesting thing that the Brown victory did was give the Republicans an early boost of adrenaline -- which caused them to peak way too early.

By last week, Republicans seemed to have gotten so wrapped up in their talking points -- that it would be political suicide for the Democrats to pass the bill, that Scott Brown was the will of the people, that the bill was dead -- that they themselves really believed it.

After all, they had won the governorships in New Jersey and Virginia and a senate seat in Massachusetts, for chrissake!

But, the fact is, that the bill wasn't dead. Far from it.

There was a big question as to whether the Democrats would have the nerve to cave or pass. Nobody quite knew. But they always had to tools to make this bill law. And the drama of this whole thing -- the near defeat, and come from behind victory -- made victory a lot sweeter.

Now, after the vote is safely over, the Republican pronouncements seem a little shrill. And now that they're not pounding their podiums they look somewhat slayable. And Democrats seem a lot more energized than if a silly party hack like Martha Coakley had simply taken her seat. The bill would have passed without nearly the amount of enthusiasm it has now.

For all of that, we have Scott Brown to thank.

But, in any event, this is a great day. President Obama is the real thing. A true ninja master. Open your own bottle of champagne!

Take it away, Kool and the Gang: