Sunday Take: For Democrats, health-care debate exposes deep wounds

Howard Dean has angered the Democratic leadership.
Howard Dean has angered the Democratic leadership. (Toby Talbot/associated Press)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Amid the spectacle that has become the health-care debate, Democrats have taken comfort in the belief that they will be rewarded politically if in the end they pass something -- almost anything. That proposition is being sorely tested in these final days of maneuvering.

For all the talk of the damage President Obama has sustained during this long and difficult year, congressional Democrats have suffered at least as much -- and will have to face the voters far sooner than the president.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced on Saturday that he had the 60 votes to pass the bill. The House still must be persuaded to go along, but Obama and the Democrats are one step closer to achieving the goal that has eluded so many presidents and Congresses. That in itself is a significant achievement.

The long fight has been costly, however. The health-care debate has split the Democratic coalition. Unity has given way to bitter infighting. This has been a moment for individuals to make war on one another.

Whatever goodwill existed among Democrats at the start of Obama's presidency has been fractured and will be difficult to put together again. The events of the past week underline that reality.

Joe Lieberman, who bolted the party in 2006 to salvage his Senate seat and then accepted the Democrats' generosity to maintain his committee chairmanship despite having backed Republican John McCain in last year's presidential race, held the party hostage in negotiations, infuriating many liberals.

Howard Dean, who has grievances about the way he was discarded by the Obama team after running the Democratic National Committee for four years, has led a vocal guerrilla war against the bill from outside the Congress, enraging the party leadership.

Democratic centrists have extracted costly promises to stay onboard, but still fear for their political future. Bloggers and progressive activists have counterattacked against them, vowing retribution. Labor is unenthusiastic to hostile.

Progressives in Congress have swallowed hard over the compromises needed to round up enough votes to beat back a Republican filibuster.

Hard-headed politicians would say there was no way to avoid this kind of squabbling, given the stakes and complexity of health-care reform and the rules of Congress. There are no immaculate legislative struggles on a piece of social legislation of this consequence.

Leading Democrats also think that, in the end, voters care less about the process than about the outcome. If, in the face of united Republican opposition, the Democrats produce historic changes in the availability of health care to millions more citizens and protect against some of the arbitrary practices of the insurance industry, that will override the messy path to success.

But there is something broader for Democrats to worry about as they try to finish their work this year and prepare for 2010 and the midterm elections. What began as an undercurrent of dissatisfaction has grown throughout the year. Disappointment with the president is dwarfed by discontent with Congress.

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