Good for Obama, bad for congressional Democrats

By Marc A. Thiessen
Monday, March 1, 2010; 10:58 AM

Death panels are back. No, they are not part of the health-care legislation President Obama is proposing. But if Democratic leaders try to ram through an unpopular health-care bill along strict party lines, as they seem poised to do, they could condemn many congressional careers -- and quite possibly their majority -- in this year's midterm elections. That would be bad for Democrats in Congress -- but good for President Obama.

The legislation Obama is pursuing faces deep-seated public opposition. A CNN poll last week found that only 25 percent of Americans want Congress to pass a health-care bill similar to the one it has been working on for the past year, while 73 percent say Congress should either start from scratch or not pass health-care legislation at all (other polls show support for the bill in the low 40s). A Gallup poll last week found that 52 percent of Americans oppose using "reconciliation" to overcome Republican opposition and push the bill through with Democratic votes.

Bottom line: Americans don't trust this Congress on health care, they don't like the Democrats' bill, and don't agree with the partisan legislative strategy the Democrats are pursuing.

Yet in the face of this message from the heartland, congressional Democrats keep pushing their bill. It's as if they see the writing on the wall and realize that they have just a few months left to enact their radical agenda before voters throw them out. They may be right. In a recent interview with National Journal, political analyst Charlie Cook said that the health-care bill "is one of the biggest miscalculations that we've seen in modern political history" and "as it became more clear that they had screwed up, [Democrats] just kept doubling down their bet." He concludes: "it's very hard to come up with a scenario where Democrats don't lose the House."

Over the weekend, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked what she would say to Democrats who were "in real fear of losing their seats in November if they support you now." Her answer? "We're not here just to self-perpetuate our service in Congress." That's easy for her to say -- the people of San Francisco are not going to throw her out of office eight months from now. But there are 49 Democrats in Congress who won election in districts that went for John McCain in the 2008 elections. These Democrats are effectively being asked to commit Obama-assisted suicide. And the damage may not be limited to these 49. In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown (R) won a majority of the votes in liberal Democratic Rep. Barney Frank's district -- which means nearly anything is possible come November.

But the irony is that, while the Democrats' health-care strategy may cost them control of Congress, it may end up saving the Obama presidency. After all, the Republican takeover in 1994 saved Obama's Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who moderated in the face of the GOP Congress, rehabilitating his presidency. He declared the "era of Big Government is over" and worked with Republicans to pass welfare reform, the line-item veto, the Defense of Marriage Act and other centrist priorities. In 1996, he won reelection in a landslide.

The purpose of Obama's presidency, unlike Clinton's, is to usher in a new era of big government, not end one -- so if Obama tacks to the center, it will be out of necessity, not strategy. But the need to work with a Republican Congress would require Obama to moderate his approach, whether he likes it or not -- which would, in turn, make him more electable in 2012.

A Republican victory would also give Obama someone to blame. Today, the president spends a lot of time trying to paint Republicans as obstructionists, but the charge rings a little hollow. Even with Brown's victory, the Democrats still have their largest majority in decades. If the GOP took over one or both houses, the obstructionism charge could gain traction and become a potent campaign issue in 2012. This is why some Republican strategists quietly hope that their party will gain seats in this year's midterm elections but fall just short of taking back either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

In this sense, jamming health-care legislation through Congress along party lines could end up being a two-fer for Obama: It would give him a victory on his signature legislative priority while allowing the voters to take out the brunt of their anger on congressional Democrats, not him. In the end, that may be the only thing that prevents Barack Obama from ending up like Jimmy Carter -- a failed, one-term president.

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