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

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009; A02

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.

No Congress is ever loved, but the assessments of this Congress are striking in their negativity. In the most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, only 7 percent rated the performance of Congress above average, and 34 percent called it one of the worst.

Two benchmarks put that number into perspective. In October 1994, shortly before Republicans ousted Democrats from power in the House and Senate, 16 percent called that Congress one of the worst. In October 2006, just before Democrats recaptured control, 25 percent called that Congress one of the worst. In the past five months, the percentage rating this Congress that low has jumped 11 percentage points.

Thirty-five percent gave the Democratic Party a positive rating, still higher than the 28 percent who rated the Republican Party that way. But since February, Democrats' overall image has gone from net positive to net negative. Republicans, while still living in negative territory, have improved slightly.

A third finding underscores the problem for Democrats: Thirty-eight percent said their member of Congress deserves to be reelected, and 49 percent said it is time to give a new person a chance. That is identical to the percentage who said to give a new person a chance a month before the 1994 GOP landslide and slightly above the number a month before the 2006 Democratic takeover.

Why won't that anti-Washington sentiment fall equally on Republicans and Democrats? Because it rarely does. Republicans are hardly secure or popular, but Democrats are in control. If the public is ready for change again in November, Democrats will feel the brunt of that anger.

Many factors contribute to the dissatisfaction with Washington. People are angry about bailouts for bankers. The unemployment rate is at 10 percent. They see the deficit rising and worry about the long-term consequences. Conservatives and liberals question whether their leaders have the right priorities.

Health care has exhausted Democrats and tested their capacity to govern. Democrats hope that passage of a health-care bill will prove to be a political restorative. But the longer the debate has gone on, the less people like what they think they may be getting. Congress may be on the cusp of a historic achievement, but right now the public believes the status quo is preferable to change.

Democrats have a dual problem. They must find the votes to pass a bill to avoid the charge that, even with their big majorities, they are incapable of governing. They also must convince voters that the policy changes they want to enact include far more pluses than minuses.

That is a big challenge, not only for Obama and Democratic leaders. They are governing in difficult times and see themselves close to the finish line on health care. But they are nonetheless bracing for a difficult election year in 2010.

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