On Health Care, Democrats Lack Passion

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, August 21, 2009

Here's the least surprising news of the week: Americans are souring on the Democratic Party. The wonder is that it's taken so long for public opinion to curdle. There's nothing agreeable about watching a determined attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center reports that just 49 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the Democrats, compared with 62 percent in January and 59 percent in April. This doesn't mean, though, that Americans look any more kindly upon the Republican Party -- favorability for the GOP has been steady at 40 percent throughout the year, according to Pew.

What it does mean, however, is that Republican efforts to obstruct, delay, confuse, stall, distort and otherwise impede the reform agenda that Americans voted for last November have had measurable success. And it means that Democrats, having been given a mandate -- one as comprehensive as either party is likely to enjoy in this era of red-vs.-blue polarization -- don't really know how to use it.

That the Democratic Party is no paragon of organization and discipline is almost axiomatic. That's not the problem. The Pew poll suggests that the Democrats' weakness is neither strategic nor tactical but emotional. To quote the poet William Butler Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

There's not enough passion on the Democratic side, not enough heat. There's some radiating from the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, too little emanating from the Democratic majority in the Senate, and not nearly enough coming from President Obama. Republicans, by contrast, have little going for them except passion -- but they're using it to impressive effect.

Step back from the health-care debate for a moment and survey the landscape. Democrats are within sight of a goal that has fired the party's dreams for half a century. They have the power to enact meaningful reform. Polls show that Americans are hungry for reform. The solid wall of opposition once presented by big business has crumbled. Even the insurance companies and Big Pharma are ready to deal. Yet somehow we've gotten sidetracked onto an argument about "death panels," while a provision that many advocates believe is central to effective reform -- a government-run, public health insurance plan -- is suddenly in doubt.

How could this happen? The Pew survey suggests, basically, that Republicans are more passionate about the health-care issue than Democrats.

According to Pew, those who would be "pleased" if health-care reforms proposed by Obama and Congress are enacted outnumber those who would be "disappointed." But when you look at those who feel most passionately about the issue, just 15 percent say they would be "very happy" if the reforms go through, while 18 percent say they would be "angry." Among Republicans, a full 38 percent would be angry if health-care reform finally passes -- but among Democrats, just 13 percent would be angered if it doesn't.

It's hard to argue that anger, per se, is something we need more of in American politics. But passion -- which sometimes, yes, finds expression in anger -- is a powerful and legitimate tool. Health-care reform is something the Democratic Party has been trying to achieve since the Truman administration, and only 13 percent of Democrats would be angry if it fails? Only 27 percent of Democrats would be "very happy" if reform passes, according to Pew, while 42 percent could only bestir themselves to feel "pleased" that the grail long sought by the most beloved Democrat of all, ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy, has finally been attained?

One reason for this imbalance of passion about health-care reform, I believe, is that there is no single piece of legislation around which Democrats -- and others who see the need for reform -- can rally. But it's impossible to deny that the Republican strategy of generating anger and fear has also been a major factor.

Where are the millions who so passionately chanted "Yes, we can!" at Obama's campaign rallies? Where are the legions who cried tears of joy on election night and tears of pride on Inauguration Day? Is Sarah Palin now the only politician capable of inspiring "passionate intensity"?

Democratic leaders should stop backpedaling, stop apologizing and show their followers -- by words and deeds -- that the principle of universal health care is worth fighting for. They should even allow themselves to raise their voices at times -- not motivated by anger but by conviction.

Passion finds expression in anger, but also in hope. Democrats knew and felt that during the campaign. If they forget it, they might as well also forget about achieving the kind of fundamental change that the country sorely needs.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company