Friday, September 4, 2009

The Politics of Health Care Reform

If I wasn’t a priest, I would really like to be a pundit or political editor at some news division. I enjoy politics. I like pondering the abstractions of political philosophy, I like political history and I especially like the horse-race of politics; it’s one of my favorite contact sports!

I have been thinking and reading a lot about the health-care reform debate going on right now and have pondered why there has been so little traction in getting a bill put together and passed. Here are some thoughts. Oh, and by the way, this is non-ideological analysis. I am not wanting to or trying to make a point for or against health-care reform in general or any version of that is currently on the table. I am really interested in the politics.

My take is this. The key to understanding why no bill has been crystallized or passed – and likely won’t be until the end of the year – is found in pondering a quote from Will Rogers, “I'm not a member of any organized political party, I'm a Democrat! Apart from the humor of the statement, there is a nugget of truth here that applies to the current situation. Right now, today, the Democratic Party has 256 members in the house and 59 members in the Senate (60 until Senator Kennedy passed away). In other words, the party holds a strong majority in congress. They would have no problem in passing a bill. They do not need the Republicans to get this done. So, why haven’t they? Bottom line, the Democratic Party is divided on the issue. The leadership is from the left wing of the Party and wants a bill that largely reflects the values of President Obama. But even though the Democratic Party is the natural home of the left liberal, it is not a left liberal party – even in congress. Part of the reason is the last two elections. The Party did a bang up job of regaining seats in both the House and the Senate. It did so by getting moderates to run in traditionally Republican or at least moderate/populist districts. In the face of the disastrous record of the Republicans in Congress and a very, very unpopular President, these folks won handily. It was a masterful strategy.

The problem is there are now a number of Democrats in Congress who are not liberal and who are not excited about the Health-Care reform proposed by the President and the Congressional leadership. If you want to get a feel for this think Jim Webb. Webb is a Democratic senator from Virginia. He is a populist and deeply against the war in Iraq. But he is not a left liberal. He used to be a Republican and worked in the Reagan Administration! Go figure. He is an example of a number of Democrats in the Congress who are moderate and some who are even conservative.

Okay, back to my point. While the “tea-partiers” and “birthers” make great copy on CNN and Fox, I don’t think that they and things like them are the real story here. The story is Democrats who have to go back to voters in their states and districts that, while not hard right wingers, are not left liberals. These Democratic representatives and senators have to get re-elected. They have to be attentive to their constituents. They have to dance with who “brung” them. As Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.”

My prediction: when Congress passes a health-care reform bill it will be a compromise. But it will not be a compromise with Republicans – it will be a compromise within the Democratic Party. This will be a disappointment for ideologues, but this is exactly how the founders envisioned our system working. Everyone gets some of what they want, but no one gets all they want. This creates cross-cutting cleavages across party lines and ideological lines. These cross-cutting cleavages are part of what contributes to the stability of our Republic and the protection of civil rights.

Oh, I am not dismissing voter sentiment. It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” He was right. But one must remember that for the President national sentiment matters. But for members of congress it is the sentiment of districts and states that matter. A Democrat from Rhode Island and a Democrat from Arkansas have very different constituencies. But what must be remembered is that in Congress public sentiment is gauged district by district and state by state.

Thanks for humoring me!

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