GOP win doesn't mean health reform is dead

By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The biggest political issue in the country today is the Democrats' health-care reform proposal, which lives or dies based on whether it can attract 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster.

That 6oth vote was up for grabs in Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts, a reliably liberal and Democratic state.

The Democratic candidate promised she'd vote for the health bill, which the Republican vowed to vote against.

The Republican won after surging the final weeks of the campaign.

Ergo, health-care reform is dead.

This is the kind of facile conclusion and faulty logic that, unfortunately, drives too much of the political narrative, just as it did after gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. So let's break it down into its component parts and see where it goes astray.

The first thing to say is that while those of us who are Washington insiders may be focused on health reform, the country has its mind on lots of other things. First and foremost is a lousy economy that has resulted in lots of lost jobs and lost wealth, a big spike in the federal deficit, and big budget shortfalls for state and local governments. Combine that with lousy weather, an attempted terrorist attack, a never-ending war in Afghanistan and an earthquake that may have just killed 200,000 people and you don't have to be George Gallup to figure out that Americans are in a grumpy mood and might want to take it out on the politicians and parties in power.

That seething discontent is no less evident in Florida and California, states with Republican governors, than it is in Virginia and New Jersey, which until this month had Democratic governors. And it's even true in other countries -- Britain, Ireland, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Chile and Argentina are several that come to mind. The common thread in those places isn't health-care reform.

Point 2 is that the Constitution does not require 60 votes in the Senate to pass a health reform bill -- or anything else, for that matter. A filibuster-proof majority certainly makes it quicker and easier, and there's been a lot of clever talk about parliamentary maneuvers that could get some version of the bill to the president's desk with fewer votes than that. The better approach, however, has always been the straightforward one: Put the final package before the Senate and make the lawmakers talk and talk, amend and amend, vote and vote until a deal is struck and the majority is allowed to work its will.

Given how dug in everyone has become over the past two months, I'm mindful of how difficult it will be to get a few Republicans to sign on to such a deal. But there is very little in the latest version of the health-care bill that Maine's two Republican senators haven't supported in the past or couldn't support in the future. In succumbing to the intense social and political pressure from their caucus, both Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins flunked the leadership test last year. Massachusetts has now given them a second chance to redeem their reputations and political fortunes in a state that has always valued independence over party loyalty.

The third and most important point to make is that the Massachusetts contest was not a referendum on health-care reform, despite the best efforts of the national media and the national parties to make it so. It has been more than a few years since I worked the political vineyards of my home state, but even from a distance it's not hard to see that the political fault lines haven't changed all that much. Despite the state's reputation as a Democratic stronghold, its voters have routinely elected liberal Republicans as governors and senators as counterweights to the ethnic Democratic pols who have long controlled the state legislature. And at the moment, the voters are rather fed up with the whole statehouse crowd. The House speaker and a number of others have recently been ensnared in a long-running corruption investigation, while the Democratic governor has turned out to be a huge disappointment to those who thought he could clean up the political process and bring stability to the state's troubled finances.

Against that backdrop, it's not hard to understand the attraction to a fresh Republican face promising independence from the political establishment rather than an attorney general whose campaign was closely tied to it. All of this was reinforced last weekend by the juxtaposition of Scott Brown traveling around the state to meet voters in his pickup truck and Martha Coakley scrambling to revive her campaign with a series of appearances with the president, the governor, mayors and members of the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation.

As for health care, Massachusetts has already adopted a reform plan that, with its subsidies and individual mandate and government-run insurance exchange, looks to the naked eye not unlike the plan now before Congress. Despite some initial glitches and higher-than-expected costs, the program has broad support among voters and the business community-- so broad, in fact, that Brown himself has said he would not vote to repeal it. So why would those same voters now be rising up to defeat a national plan modeled on the Massachusetts experiment, only this time with better cost controls and special provisions to protect the state's teaching hospitals and increase its Medicaid funding?

As U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts famously reminded, all politics is local. There are lots of reasons other than derailing health reform why normally liberal Massachusetts voters may have wanted to send an angry signal to the state's political establishment. For Democrats in Washington, the danger now is not that they will ignore the election returns, but that they will misread them and sound a premature retreat from a historic and game-changing opportunity.

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