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Democrats discover the benefits of taking a stand on health reform

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 19, 2010

If health-care reform finally staggers across the finish line, it will be because President Obama and congressional Democrats recognized -- at long last -- the truth that has been staring them in the face for more than a year: They'll be better off politically if they just try their best to do the right thing.

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No matter what the Democrats attempt or how they go about it, Republicans are going to complain, obstruct and attack. That's the inescapable lesson from this whole exercise, and it's hard to fathom why it took so long to sink in. The Democrats looked ridiculous, sitting around the campfire and singing "Kumbaya" while the opposition was out in the forest whittling spears and arrows.

As if to prove my point, some Republicans are already talking about trying to repeal the reform bill even though it hasn't been passed. This hardly seems in the spirit of bipartisanship -- which the GOP, with cynical but skillful rhetoric, has elevated into some kind of saintly virtue.

You have to admire the GOP's chutzpah. George W. Bush governed like a steamroller as he enacted his radical initiatives -- massive tax cuts, a huge shift in the balance between privacy and security, an unprecedented "big government" takeover of education policy, an expensive and unfunded Medicare prescription drug program.

But the moment the Republicans were out of power, they discovered a moral imperative for the majority party to do everything in a bipartisan fashion. Democrats, mindful of polls showing that party affiliation has dramatically weakened over the past generation, were all too happy to oblige. In their first big legislative exercise -- the $862 billion stimulus bill -- the new president and the new Congress bent over backward to incorporate Republican ideas such as tax cuts. But of course, no good deed goes unpunished: More than a year later, the GOP is still attacking the stimulus as if it had been crafted by Chairman Mao.

On health care, the Republicans interpreted bipartisanship as meaning that the whole thing had to be done their way, which basically would have meant no health-care reform at all. Once again, Democrats bent over backward. From the beginning, the White House decided not to push for truly universal health care -- the party's long-held goal -- but instead to settle for something less.

There are reasonable arguments for the measured, moderate approach that President Obama took -- health care does represent nearly one-sixth of the economy, and maybe a deep recession isn't the time for a radical restructuring that could have a real, long-term impact on soaring costs. But even the middle-of-the-road reform package that passed the House got diluted in the Senate. It's worth passing because it enshrines the principle that health care ought to be universal, but it's no revolution.

Yet the Republicans portray even this fairly modest set of fixes -- cautious, incremental, fiscally responsible -- as socialism run rampant. They portray the health-reform package as a government "takeover," although the idea of any kind of limited, restricted, tightly constrained little government-run health plan has long been abandoned. They portray Democrats as a bunch of wild-eyed leftists for a bill that Richard Nixon would have signed.

There's nothing that Democrats can do, in the short run, to counteract the success Republicans have had in inciting conservatives to anger about health reform -- and raising doubt in the minds of independents. That damage will take time to repair. History would suggest that even the few elements of the package that would take effect immediately -- such as allowing children to be covered by their parents' insurance until age 26 -- should quickly squelch some of the Republican talk about repeal. Entitlements are easy to give and awfully hard to take away.

But what can, and is, being fixed is the damage the president and Congress have done to their standing with the Democratic base. Thanks to Obama's vigorous campaign-style rallies in support of health reform, polls show that the measure's popularity among Democrats is steadily rising. If Democrats are to be competitive in November, their core supporters have to be energized, not depressed.

The poll numbers started to turn around when Democratic leaders took a stand. Having the courage of one's convictions: What a concept.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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