In keeping with his new spirit of compromise, President Barack Obama has offered a health-care bill staking out middle ground between House and Senate Democrats.
At $950 billion, it's more expensive than the Senate bill, but cheaper than the House bill, and mixes and matches sundry tax proposals. Obama has again proved himself a committed bipartisan leader if liberals from the House and liberals from the Senate are considered political parties.
Obama's true post-Massachusetts strategy now comes into focus. It wasn't to engage in good faith with Republicans, who will be handy props at the upcoming health-care "summit." It wasn't to "pivot to jobs." It was to wait until the shock of losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat faded enough that he could keep doing what he'd done previously.
Democrats are now in pursuit of a "catastrophic success" to borrow George W. Bush's phrase for the Iraq War on health care. They figure that both House and Senate Democrats have already taken defining votes for unpopular health-care bills, that November is inevitably going to be ugly, so they might as well reach again for the goal that has eluded them since Truman.
It's the Samson Option, with a twist. In his last extremity, Samson pulled down the pillars of the temple of Dagon to destroy himself and his Philistine enemies. Democrats will rain destruction on their own hapless vulnerable members, a category that grows by the day. These swing-district Democrats, once hailed as the "majority makers" by Nancy Pelosi, have a new role as the suicidal front ranks of Pelosi's Last Charge.
Top Democrats have talked themselves into believing that only passing health-care reform will save them. This is the latest woefully mistaken interpretation of Bill Clinton's experience in 1994, whereby Clinton supposedly suffered most from failing to pass his ungainly, unpopular health-care reform. If only he'd succeeded in changing the health-care system in ways people opposed, he'd have been showered with huzzahs by a grateful nation.
Democrats have the usual dynamics of democratic consent reversed, a little like the Queen of Hearts who pronounces "sentence first, verdict afterwards" in "Alice in Wonderland." Having failed to persuade the public of the merits of their bill, Democrats will try to pass it anyway on sheer legislative muscle including the exploitation of filibuster-bypassing "reconciliation" rules in the Senate and convince people what a good idea it was afterwards.
They think Obama will be better able to make the case for the bill once it passes. This assumes that once the bill is written into law over their vehement objections, Republicans will quietly leave the field and stop noting the tax increases, Medicare cuts and the overall cost, i.e. "winning the message war."
All this is threadbare political rationalization. The real reason for passing the bill is simpler and, in its way, more admirable: unalloyed ideological commitment. Democrats have a theological belief that a quasi-government takeover of health care is the only way to create an equitable system covering nearly everyone. Why should they let public opinion or a mere historic rebuke in Massachusetts get in their way? Their antecedent is House Republicans persisting in the impeachment of Clinton even after getting beaten in the 1998 congressional elections. Sometimes a party won't take "no" for an answer.
And, really, what else can Democrats do? "Pivot to jobs"? The job market is outside the short-term control of anyone, and Obama's only jobs policy is yet more politically poisonous deficit spending. Unless he was going to take a powder this year or compromise with Republicans, which doesn't interest him or his party, he had to try health care once more, with feeling.
Nancy Pelosi should commission a poet as talented as Tennyson to memorialize the impending charge of her former majority makers: "Boldly they rode and well, into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell."