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When 'reconciliation' equals leadership

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Googling to my heart's content on a recent eve, I decided to match "health care" with "ram" to see what would happen. What I got was about 9.8 million hits, some of them right on the nose and reflecting the current conservative meme that after more than a year, several votes, countless presidential speeches and having to look upon the face of Harry Reid some 10,000 times, the health-care bill is being "rammed" through Congress -- an absurdity that now has currency through sheer repetition. It is not exactly the renowned vaunted Big Lie, just a miserable little one.

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The vaunted reasonable man might protest that an entire lifetime of attempted health-care reform does not amount to a ramming, but the polls do suggest that President Obama's plan -- and it is now his plan -- is out of favor with the public. This is what now passes for a compelling argument against the bill. It is, instead, almost entirely beside the point.

In our poll-driven culture it might seem strange for a president to attempt something that's somewhat unpopular but merely right. After all, the health-care bill has almost no near-term benefit for anyone who votes. Its immediate beneficiaries are the uninsured, consisting of the poor and vulnerable, and the young and delusionally invincible. As a voting bloc, they largely don't.

The rest of America looks at the bill and shudders. It seems to promise nothing but hardship. The aged have Medicare, and most workers have insurance of some sort. Sure, many fear losing what they have and rightly hate insurance companies, but they seem to prefer their existing plans to what they have been told will be a program run by sullen former Soviet bureaucrats. Opt out and you will be liquidated.

As with almost everything else the Obama administration has attempted, the benefits of health insurance reform either are invisible to the monumentally important television camera or are promised for a future time. No one can see savings -- either to the health system or the economy in general -- not because they are fictitious but because they are unfilmable.

It is the same with auto companies that did not disappear, a financial system that did not crater, and jobs that were retained along with a rate of joblessness that recently has been reduced.

As anyone in TV can tell you, it is impossible to film a reduction in the joblessness rate or a bank that's saved -- "before" and "after" look identical -- or, for that matter, teachers who were not laid off because their school system got stimulus funds. These are the visual equivalent of the sound made by the tree that falls in the forest but that no one hears. There's nothing to show. The Iraq war will not end with Obama on the deck of an aircraft carrier, wallowing in patriotic kitsch. The picture will simply go dark. This is a PR dilemma and, for Obama, a political catastrophe.

Great presidents lead. In a sense, Lincoln "rammed" through the Emancipation Proclamation just as FDR "rammed" through Lend-Lease, Truman "rammed" through desegregation of the military, and Lyndon Johnson "rammed" the Civil Rights Act down the throat of a gagging South. These might be considered more dramatic issues than mundane health care, I grant you -- but grant me an exception for someone putting off doctor visits because he or she can't afford to be sick. To that person, this bill is as dramatic as the difference between sickness and health -- the great divide of mankind.

The baleful fact is that the country suffers from a surfeit of democracy -- a gazillion interest groups, a gazillion blogs, a gazillion talk shows and all of them insisting on transparency so a gazillion eyes peer over the shoulders of politicians. The black but necessary art of politics shies from the sun. Little gets done. Backrooms have been turned into rec rooms and meetings are seminars. We are doomed. Worse, we are bored.

Google does not tell the whole story. It fails to answer what's wrong with the old belief -- a virtual childhood mantra -- that "majority rules"? It was never "supermajority rules," and the presidency was never intended as a weather vane, turning this way and that on the slight breeze of the latest poll. Lead and the people will -- or will not -- follow. Either way, ram the damn thing, Mr. President. Ram it!

cohenr@washpost.com


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