After health reform, is anyone willing to compromise?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA on Tuesday presided over a stirring signing ceremony for health insurance reform. The bill, Mr. Obama proclaimed, enshrines "the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their health care" -- a principle, he noted, that other presidents had been championing for a century.

Less stirring was the sober reality that the signing ceremony also doubled as a Democratic Party pep rally. For this moment of history, not a Republican legislator was present, because not one had voted for the bill. And that was no anomaly. The day after the House approved health reform, a Senate committee approved a broad overhaul of the nation's financial regulatory system, again without a single Republican vote. And the day after that -- Tuesday -- the Senate began what is sure to be an acrimonious debate on a package of fixes to the health-care bill that will pass, if it does, with only Democratic support.

One school of thought sees nothing wrong in any of this. Democrats stand for one thing, Republicans for another. The country holds elections, people choose and the winner rules. If Republicans are right that the health bill is unpopular, Americans can vote the Democrats out of office seven months from now and elect Republicans who will undo what Mr. Obama signed into law yesterday.

This perspective misses a couple of points. We supported the bill, we're glad Mr. Obama signed it Tuesday, and we hope the incipient repeal movement sputters out. But we also believe that neither party has a monopoly on good ideas. When it came to health care, the Democrats were right to emphasize the morality and efficiency of universal coverage. But the bill could have been improved with the inclusion of more Republican ideas -- by giving consumers more "skin in the game," for example, to promote cost control, or by reforming the nation's crapshoot of a malpractice system. As with health care, so with financial regulation, climate change, school quality and fiscal indebtedness: Neither party has all the answers.

Most of the country agrees with us on this point, not with the apostles of ideological purity. A plurality of Americans are independents. They want pragmatic cooperation, and they want sensible ideas acknowledged regardless of which party promotes them. Fundamental reform passed on party-line votes has less credibility with them and less chance of quickly weaving itself into the American social fabric.

We're purposely not apportioning blame to one side or the other. For a host of reasons, the system has become decreasingly responsive to this centrist impulse in the population. One factor in particular is worth citing, because -- unlike many others -- it is fixable, and particularly so in 2010. The crassly self-interested method by which politicians draw legislative boundaries, both state and congressional, creates "safe" Democratic and Republican districts that leave legislators vulnerable only to intraparty challenges. That pushes them ever further to the extreme flanks of their respective parties.

Once they get to Washington, or to their state capitals, they not surprisingly find little ground for compromise with members from the other extreme and no political value in searching for such ground. Nonpartisan commissions that would redraw lines in the wake of this year's census based on community interest, not politicians' self-preservation, wouldn't end the hyper-partisanship. But they would help.

For the moment, passage of health-care legislation has set many politicians in search of more earth to scorch. Minutes after Mr. Obama signed the bill, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) capitalized with a fundraising letter for the Democratic Senate campaign committee quoting the president and asking for money to "help us push back against the right-wing liars." On Monday, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain declared, "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year."

Maybe it's naive to hope that other politicians might emerge from this fight chastened by the bitter tone and partisan outcome. On the other hand, we know there are senators and representatives who want to rise above the demonization of "liars" and "socialists" and legislate in the national interest. On financial reform, as on immigration, education and climate change, some senators continue to seek cooperation across the aisle. And perhaps an appeal to self-interest could nudge the impulse along. Lawmakers might look to their low approval ratings and ask themselves how much longer voters will tolerate the vitriol.

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