The missing element

THE MISSING ELEMENT…. I found myself yelling at my monitor this morning, reading Adam Nagourney’s NYT piece about the “possibility of bipartisanship” on health care reform. It’s not Nagourney’s fault, necessarily, but the piece touches all of the bases on the problems with the underlying assumptions.

…Mr. Obama is under growing pressure to choose between wooing a small band of Republicans or struggling to rally his party to use its big majorities in Congress to get the job done. The bipartisanship exhibited in the passage of two other ambitious domestic programs that offer one historical backdrop for this debate — Social Security in 1935 and Medicare and Medicaid 30 years later — seems increasingly improbable in today’s Washington. […]

Even if he goes the bipartisan route and succeeds, the end result could be comparatively modest: Perhaps fewer than 10 Senate Republicans, and perhaps not even that many in the House, party officials said. Social Security, by contrast, passed in 1935 with the support of 16 of the 25 Republican senators and 81 of the 102 Republican representatives. […]

No less important, a partisan vote could also undercut the political legitimacy of the effort itself. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were all passed with significant support from both parties, which is one of the reasons those programs have become such an accepted part of the country’s political landscape.

That’s true. But when there was bipartisan support for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we were dealing with a Congress that had Republicans who a) took electoral mandates seriously; b) were chastened by electoral defeats; and c) had plenty of moderates and pragmatists in their caucuses. That’s no longer the case.

As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it’s not Obama’s fault Republicans have become too conservative, failed at governing, and were punished by voters.

The question of “legitimacy” then becomes tantamount to a heckler’s veto — a small, reflexive minority can cast doubt on the credibility of everything, simply by being stubborn partisans.

Nagourney said independent voters might reject Obama if he “abandons efforts to reach out to Republicans.” But what about the months of outreach the president has already done? How about the fact that we’d likely get pre-recess votes in both chambers if the majority stopped caring what Republicans thought?

Nagourney added, “[T]he go-it-alone course could cost Mr. Obama and, more important, Congressional Democrats political cover should the health care plan prove ineffective, unpopular or excessively costly before the 2010 or 2012 elections.” Perhaps, but it seems Republicans don’t much care about “cover” when it comes to launching campaign attacks. Eight GOP House members voted for the ACES bill on global warming. Will that over vulnerable House Dems “political cover” in 2010? I seriously doubt — Republicans are going to attack if they see a political benefit in it. And they always see a political benefit in it.

Nagourney went on to say relying on Democrats to pass health care reform may set “a polarizing pattern for the remaining three years of Mr. Obama’s first term, complicating his efforts to get through an ambitious agenda by forcing him to rely only on Democrats for votes.”

Maybe, but if the shrinking Republican minority is dominated by conservative ideologues, who don’t take public policy seriously, and who reflexively reject anything Obama proposes because they’re desperate to deny him successes, who’s responsible for the “polarizing pattern”?

No less a figure than Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, one of the chamber’s more conservative Dems, conceded, “The Republicans are reduced to a core, so there aren’t that many pragmatists left to work things out.”