The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Massachusetts Malefactor

A GOP Win Might Provide Democrats with a Miracle Way Out on Healthcare Reform

The day has come to see whether the GOP can pull off a “Massachusetts Miracle.” Polls show Republican candidate Scott Brown anywhere from a dead heat to a substantial lead over Martha Coakley in a special election to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. Most political watches assumed Coakley a shoe-in but Brown demonstrated meteoric momentum in recent weeks.

Coakley proved a weak candidate, with poor showings in debates and a series of campaign gaffes and missteps. However, part of Brown’s impetus is unquestionably due to the ability of the GOP to make the race into a mandate over President Obama’s push for healthcare reform. Coakley has made it clear that she will support whatever compromise bill emerges from Senate/House negotiations. Brown will certainly vote with other Republican Senators to filibuster and kill the legislation.

Scott Rasmussen, looking only at his own organization’s polls, sees it as a question of voter turnout, with larger crowds favoring Coakley and smaller ones Brown. Mark Blumenthal of, looking at a variety of last-minute polls, finds Brown’s rapid ascendancy “unprecedented” and explains how non-response bias may cause the enthusiasm of Brown supporters to overstate his lead. However, he sadly concludes this is not the case and “Brown is the likely winner.”

If Brown does prevail today, the White House and Democratic Congressional leaders are considering several draconian options to force through healthcare reform before their current supermajority in the Senate is lost.

These include delaying any recounts, certification, and swearing-in of Brown while shifting compromise negotiations into high gear, finding a Republican sixtieth vote (Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine is the most likely end of such aims), and using a budget reconciliation process that requires a simple majority of fifty-one votes to pass.

Most draconian of all would be asking every liberal in the House to vote for the Senate bill exactly as is, something highly unlikely given hostility from the left to what they see as “gutting” of the public option and other important provisions as well as the closeness of the last House vote.

However, there is another draconian option that Obama and other supporters of healthcare reform must at least be tempted to consider. Namely, allow Brown’s swearing-in and then let him and the other Republican Senators kill healthcare reform for good.

It would be a colossal defeat and embarrassment for the President. However, continued growing public sourness among voters about the current bills (56% disapproval according to Rasmussen, 54.8% according to Pollster) might give some Democratic candidates the break they need to survive the 2010 midterm elections. It could even prove helpful to Obama’s re-election chances in 2012 as well.

Moreover, Brown election would change the current Congressional dynamic. Republicans have been vocal, acerbic, and almost unanimous in their opposition to any healthcare bill Democrats produce. In spite of this, countercharges of obstructionism and “do-nothingness” against Republicans have failed to stick precisely because 2008 was a perfect storm giving Democrats every opportunity to pass a bill. Conservative Democratic Blue Dogs in the House and Senate Democratic moderates have watered down the legislation and caused it to proceed at glacial pace, not Republicans.

This would change with Brown as the forty-first vote in a Republican filibuster. Their role would shift suddenly from passive admonition to active termination. Doubtless, they will welcome the ability to place defeat of healthcare reform under their control. Yet with this control would come responsibility and quite possibly culpability as the issue is analyzed and re-debated in cooler hindsight.

Because, with their stifling actions, Republicans will not only be killing these current unpopular bills but also any healthcare reform legislation for the foreseeable future, unless they can sweep to their own supermajorities in 2010 and wish to endure likely equal hostility to that faced today by Dems in response to their own set of proposals. With one vote, Brown can become a malefactor, turning Obama from a big-government monster to a populist, progressive martyr.

I think the chances of Democrats following this scenario are extremely unlikely. Obama, Reid, and Pelosi have repeatedly demonstrated their resolve to pass what they believe is morally mandated legislation, despite its unpopularity and despite its possible negative impact to their individual political careers and the Democratic Party as a whole.

Still, it must be tempting for them to consider letting Brown and the Republicans slay this particular dragon, whose fall voters may subsequently come to view with resentment and regret, versus offering themselves up as a sacrifice to it.

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