Democrats have proved they can govern. Can they keep it going?

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

With the enactment of health-care reform, the often hapless, sometimes hopeless Democrats have transformed themselves into something America has not seen in decades: a governing party. By passing the most significant social legislation since the '60s, they have ended the policy gridlock dating to the middle of Ronald Reagan's presidency. They have revalidated the almost quaint notion that -- despite the ever greater role of money in politics -- elections have consequences, too.

This revival was partly the result of the Democrats' decision to activate their base. Obama for America -- the 13 million-member organization of the president's supporters -- was put to sleep after Barack Obama's election. But in recent weeks it was awakened and enlisted in a massive effort to lobby wavering lawmakers. Its members sent a million text messages and made half a million phone calls to fence-sitting Democrats during the 10 days preceding the House votes on Sunday. Unions and other organizations that were already pressuring Democratic lawmakers to support the legislation intensified their efforts.

Of course, none of this would have happened had the president decided to "go small" after Republican Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special Senate election in January, depriving Democrats of their 60-vote Senate supermajority. The president's insistence on a big bill that guaranteed nearly universal coverage -- a position he was encouraged to maintain by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who played Margaret Thatcher to Obama's George H.W. Bush in this tale -- is what motivated the base organizations to go all out for the bill, even as it required the White House to reawaken its own massive group of supporters. It also ensured that these organizations, which are critical to turning out the base in November, will actually be motivated to do so.

In the process, Obama and Pelosi became a legislative force that Democrats have not seen since Lyndon Johnson. Pelosi's contribution, no less than Obama's, is one for the history books. While there have been notable House speakers over the past century -- Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill -- none presided during periods of epochal reform, while the speakers who did (Henry Rainey and Joseph Byrns during the New Deal; John McCormack during the '60s) played negligible roles in enacting landmark legislation. Pelosi is the first speaker in more than 100 years whose role in the passage of major reform was indispensable.

Neither she nor Obama nor the Democratic organizations could bring along all of her colleagues. Most of the House Democrats who voted no come from heavily white working-class districts that have viewed Democratic reforms since the '60s as programs designed to help "other people" -- blacks in particular. Eighteen of the 34 Democrats who voted no came from Southern or Civil War-border states; three (Michael McMahon, Stephen Lynch, Dan Lipinski) came from northern urban districts (Staten Island, South Boston and Chicago's Southwest side, respectively) that have long been white ethnic enclaves known for their racial resentments (to name a few, Staten Island's would-be secession, and South Boston's and Southwest Chicago's sometimes-violent resistance to integration efforts).

But any hardworking Democratic member of Congress should be able to combat the ideological and racial opposition with which their reforms, and their president, have been targeted by making clear to their constituents that the policies enacted Sunday are not racially targeted but universal, including a number that take effect before the midterm elections: a ban on excluding from coverage children with preexisting conditions, a ban on annual and lifetime insurance payment limits, a prohibition on insurers' dropping enrollees when they're sick; allowing children to stay on their parents' policies till they're 26; and requiring insurers to cover co-pays for (and not apply deductibles to) preventive care.

To continue as a governing party beyond November, Democrats must apply the lessons of their health-reform victory to more popular causes. They need to establish a powerful consumer protection agency and rein in bank speculation -- causes that some congressional Democrats decline to embrace. They must pressure those Democrats relentlessly, as they did those who wavered over health reform. They need more job legislation, beginning with California Rep. George Miller's bill to save the teaching and public safety jobs on numerous states' chopping blocks, and with Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro's bill to establish an infrastructure bank to revive our construction sector.

Even if the Democrats fall a vote or two short on these issues, such causes are popular with voters well beyond their base, as well as battles for which those base voters would happily mobilize. They are causes worthy of a governing party -- particularly if it seeks to remain so.

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