Feb 25th 2010

Now or Never

by Dylan Loewe

Dylan is a regular op-ed contributor for The Guardian

If Barack Obama signs a health care reform bill later this year, today will have been its turning point. For a White House that admitted after Scott Brown's victory that it was facing a new political calculus without a contingency plan, today's summit is a remarkably impressive showing of a well-executed audible play.

Just weeks ago, health care reform appeared reasonably close to death. Few thought Democrats in the House and Senate would overcome what seemed like an impossible impasse. Reconciliation, while aggressively advocated by progressives, seemed like a nonstarter among moderate Democrats in the Senate. The White House remained committed to health care reform, but non-committal on a way forward.

At the time, the president's decision to put health care on hold for a month seemed like an unthinkable political strategy. But if today proves to be to the moment when Democrats retake control of the debate, and with it, control of health care reform's destiny, the president's strategy will prove to have been undeniably successful. The White House operated under the assumption that cooler heads within the party would prevail over time, that the conventional wisdom of progressives around the country would finally catch up to the conventional wisdom of the Beltway.

And largely, that seems to be right. Over the past weeks, Democrats on the hill have slowly but steadily arrived at the conclusion that their political survival is dependent on the party's ability to finish the health care battle. Reconciliation is no longer the rallying cry of the far left - Harry Reid is said to be close to having secured the 50 votes he'll need for the process, including those of the usual moderate thorns like Evan Bayh and Mary Landrieu.

If it works -- if Democrats pivot off of today's summit by introducing a reconciliation bill, and if Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi can cobble together a majority coalition to see it through, then the president's strategy will have given him an historic legislative victory, and an entirely new narrative for the November midterms.

It can work. And at this point, it has to. The president's decision to step back from the health care fight has left Democrats uneasy. Among the vast majority of Democrats who still approve of his performance, there are a substantial number who would rather classify themselves as "approving, but worried."

After all, the last five weeks have been devastating for loyal Democrats. Watching the news in the days after Scott Brown's victory was unbearable - the party hadn't been dealt such a serious setback since election day 2004.

But it wasn't just that Scott Brown won. It was that his win, more so than any other political moment, punctuated the defining differences between having 60 votes in the Senate and having 59. Only a year earlier, Barack Obama was sworn into office with a 58 seat majority in the Senate, a majority that Democrats almost universally described at the time as strong and able. Had we only known then what we know now.

In the wake of the Massachusetts election -- and the party's reaction to it -- progressives experienced a genuine crisis of confidence. Many rightly wondered -- and still wonder -- whether Washington can actually be changed and whether the Democratic party has the capacity to carry out its mission. As the president said in last week's weekly address, in a cadence that recalls Lincoln at Gettysburg, "What's being tested here is not just our ability to solve this one problem but our ability to solve any problem."

The task ahead for the president isn't easy. And it's made more difficult by the strategy he employed to get us here. When Democrats needed a pep talk, when they needed his reassurance, they didn't get any. Now, in the midst of a growing skepticism, the president has only one weapon in his arsenal that can restore that confidence: Action.

That begins today. But for the sake of the party, it must not end today. Health care must get passed. And the president must be the one to do the passing. At this final stage, he is the only one who can see it through. Our faith has been battered. Our confidence shaken. We need more than just a reason to hope. We need proof that our hopes can be realized.

Follow Dylan Loewe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dylanloewe

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