Weighing the odds

WEIGHING THE ODDS…. Those of us following the daily developments of the debate over health care reform can get frustrated, if not overwhelmed, by the sausage-making process. But shifting our attention from the trees to the forest, the bottom-line question remains the same: when all is said and done, is this going to happen or not?

Conservatives spent June and July delaying the process, so that August would kill reform. The growing consensus seems to be that the strategy didn’t work as well as the right had hoped.

The conventional wisdom, here and around the country, is that the centerpiece of President Obama’s domestic agenda — remaking the health care system to cut costs and cover the uninsured — is on life support and that only a political miracle could revive it.

Here’s why the conventional wisdom might be wrong:

While the month of August clearly knocked the White House back on its heels, as Congressional town hall-style meetings exposed Americans’ unease with an overhaul, the uproar does not seem to have greatly altered public opinion or substantially weakened Democrats’ resolve.

The pieces are, in fact, in place. The “critical players” are still at the negotiating table; four of the five committees have already passed bills and the fifth is finally starting to move; polls continue to show Americans support the most contentious element of the debate; and the Democratic majority seems to realize that failure in this endeavor may have catastrophic electoral consequences — creating a very strong incentive to succeed.

Jonathan Cohn had a fantastic lay-of-the-land piece yesterday arguing that reform’s prospects haven’t changed much at all since late July and “significant health care legislation is likely to pass.” Marc Ambinder reached a similar conclusion: “After August, Democrats have the momentum to pass the bill…. The more I think about the events in August, the more I think of professional wrestling. Lots of chair shots, blood and taunts, plenty of theater, but at the end of the day, everyone goes back to the locker room, changes out of their tights, and goes to the bar for a drink.”

The arguments are, to be sure, compelling, but my optimism is tempered by the realization that there are many, many ways for this to fail. It’s probably just a personal personality quirk — I’m a worrier — but there are a whole lot of choke points between today and a bill-signing ceremony, and any number of them could produce a disaster. I find it easy to imagine more conservative Dems balking at reform and letting it die for being too progressive, or more liberal Dems doing the same in response to a bill they deem too conservative.

That said, notions that reform “died” in August are silly. Reform, the White House, and the majority took plenty of shots, but they’re still standing.

There’s a circuitous routine to success, but it exists, most policymakers are committed to following it, and there’s unmistakable movement in the right direction.