The Price of Failure

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009; 9:51 AM

I'm not predicting that health-care reform will go down in flames.

But what if it does?

The media's conventional wisdom is that we are watching a slow-motion replay of the crashing and burning of Hillarycare in 1993 and 1994. Then, too, a young Democratic president was pushing a sweeping reform plan. Bill Clinton was badly wounded, lost both houses of Congress and spent his last six years battling the GOP (and, for unrelated reasons, but in a polarized atmosphere not unlike today's, eventually getting impeached).

So if President Obama were to lose on health care, the reasoning goes, he would be crippled as well.

But what if he wasn't? What if the country just concluded that he tried to push too much too fast and moved on? What if the economy continued to improve, the stock market kept rising, the jobless rate fell, and the White House got the credit? And, at the same time, another 100,000 troops came home from Iraq?

Health care is the trickiest of issues. Everyone seems to agree that the current system needs improvement, but most people -- that is, most of those with insurance -- are satisfied with their situation. They are more worried about losing what they have than abstract notions like universal coverage and cost control. No one is marching in the streets for health-care reform. The issue could fade, and everyone could go back to fretting over Jon and Kate.

I don't want to minimize the short-term hit that Obama would take. It is, after all, his signature domestic initiative, and his clout with Congress might be seriously reduced. I'm just raising the possibility that he could ride out the storm.

My guess is that the Democrats will pass something and call it health-care reform. It could be a stripped-down version that revamps insurance rules but doesn't inflict any pain. The future doesn't always resemble the past.

Meanwhile, if you think the White House isn't steamed at all the town hall coverage, check out what Robert Gibbs said on "Today:" "We all have something to lose, Matt, if we let cable television come to town hall meetings and kill health-care reform for another year, and put the special interests back in charge."

The cable networks Tuesday carried the town hall meeting of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) featuring all sorts of angry people, including a woman who complained about "the systematic dismantling of this country," making it more like "Russia" and ignoring "the Constitution." (She wound up with an invitation to "Hannity.") This is the sort of disjointed rant that goes way beyond health care, and is getting national coverage day after day.

"President Obama traveled to a town hall meeting in a high school gymnasium here yesterday to counter what he called "wild misrepresentations'' about his proposed healthcare overhaul -- his most concerted effort yet to regain momentum in a debate recently dominated by critics' aggressive assault," the Boston Globe reports from Portsmouth, N.H.

"As demonstrators waved signs and shouted across police tape outside, Obama tried to dispel the emotional argument foes have voiced over the airwaves and in local meetings across the country. He also fought back on points about costs and fears of a government takeover of the healthcare system."

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