Was it worth it?

WAS IT WORTH IT?…. Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal yesterday was rather painful to read. It featured a combination of arrogance, condescension, and cheap partisan shots, but putting all of that aside, it also started with a familiar question:

‘The people have spoken, the bastards.” That would be how Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill are feeling. The last two years of their leadership have been rebuffed. The question for the Democratic Party: Was it worth it?

If it seems like you’ve been seeing those same four words — was it worth it? — all week, it’s not your imagination. The ubiquitous question is based on the assumption that Democratic losses were the result, not of awful economic conditions, but of the party’s agenda. The president and his party completed some remarkable policy achievements, but, the argument goes, those breakthroughs only pay electoral dividends if the public likes the policies. Instead, voters disapproved, strengthening the GOP “wave.”

The evidence to bolster this case, rather than blaming the economy, remains thin. But for the sake of conversation, let’s go with it. Let’s say Democrats effectively made a giant trade — they forfeited their House majority, and in exchange, Dems had one of the most successful congresses of the century, passing landmark legislation generations in the making.

Of course it was worth it. This is what big majorities are for.

There have been plenty of pieces making the case, and I’d recommend items from Cohn, Chait, and Sargent, among others. But I was especially struck by William Saletan’s Slate piece yesterday, not only because I disagree with him from time to time, but because I was nodding in agreement when he explained, “[I]f health care did cost the party its majority, so what? The bill was more important than the election.”

Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren’t going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.

And that’s not counting financial regulation, economic stimulus, college lending reform, and all the other bills that became law under Pelosi. So spare me the tears and gloating about her so-called failure. If John Boehner is speaker of the House for the next 20 years, he’ll be lucky to match her achievements. […]

It’s funny, in a twisted way, to read all the post-election complaints that Democrats lost because they thought only of themselves. Even the chief operating officer of the party’s leading think tank, the Center for American Progress, says Obama failed to convince Americans “that he knows their jobs are as important as his.” That’s too bad, because Obama, Pelosi, and their congressional allies proved just the opposite. They risked their jobs — and in many cases lost them — to pass the health care bill. The elections were a painful defeat, and you can argue that the bill was misguided. But Democrats didn’t lose the most important battle of 2010. They won it.

Call me old fashioned, but I thought the point of getting elected is to try to make a difference. Acquiring power just for the sake of having it is hollow exercise in vanity. Once in a great while, officials have an opportunity to use their power to improve the lives of their fellow citizens and make the country considerably better off.

I get the sense this week that some would have counseled Democrats to let the opportunity pass for the sake of their careers. “We didn’t do much,” Dems could say this week, “but at least we’re still in charge.”

What nonsense.

Democrats started 2009 with an abundance of political capital, which they proceeded to invest. The efforts didn’t pay off on Tuesday, but the dividends for the country will be felt for years.