The greatest progressive victory in nearly half a century -- the decision to make health care at last a right and not a privilege -- will reach far beyond American medicine to transform the shape and future of our politics.
Predictably, the Republicans remain trapped in a nihilistic past, waging a last-ditch battle for some token consolation prize via the Senate reconciliation process. (On a parliamentary point, they succeeded in limiting a technical portion of the student loan reforms attached to the measure. Now there's something to toast with a cup of stale tea.)
The GOP’s hapless legislative skirmishing is a sideshow. In the main arena, a new era has already emerged.
First, the outcome of health reform points to a truce, if not a settlement, in the abortion wars. On the one hand, there’ll be no rollback of Roe v Wade; and on the other, no federal funding for abortion. (States, of course, can make a different decision with their own money.) The pro-choice forces don't like this middle ground and will try to end the prohibition on funding; the other side will continue to push for the "Human Life Amendment" that even Ronald Reagan and the Bushes championed only in rhetoric.
Both sides will lose.
In the broad mainstream, the issue is no longer all or nothing. Instead, abortion politics is moving toward compromise, toward a reasonable position that reflects where the country is and what's politically feasible for both advocates and opponents of abortion rights. That's almost exactly what Democratic pro-life Congressman Bart Stupak said as he led his coalition in the final hours to support life-saving health reform. I have to revoke the place I gave him on last week's list of villains. He endangered health reform, but whether his support was critical or not, he then rallied to it. Stupak insisted on his principle -- but not on the ploy of effectively depriving women of abortion coverage even in insurance policies they purchase with their own money.
For the far right, he's now become Public Enemy Number One (or maybe Number Two since there's no one the haters hate more hatefully than Barack Obama). The obscene, threatening calls made to his office include the wish -- captured on tape -- that he was dead. What a pro-life message that is, echoing the recent assassination of Dr. George Tiller, murdered during Sunday services at his church.
The venom is typical of the racial and homophobic epithets hurled at Members of Congress by the Tea Party mob last week. It’s a fringe movement. But that didn’t stop a group of Republican Congressmen -- all white, all men -- from urging the lunacy forward from the balcony outside the House Chamber. The temperament outside was reflected inside the Capitol itself, where a Republican "colleague" shouted that Stupak was a "baby killer." His true objection was that Stupak failed to be the bill killer Republicans had counted on.
The ugly truth is that the GOP is married to the mob. And its members stand hostage to it. This is the second post-reform reality: The GOP’s fellow-traveling with extremists now threatens to marginalize it. Genuine danger lurks in the right wing’s darker recesses-- physical danger along with danger to the character of the country. But most Americans are alienated by extremism; there will be a political price paid by a party recklessly cruising to midterm elections on gossamer wingnuts. Polling shows independents inching back toward the Democrats and opinion on the health bill moving into positive territory. It will move more as facts experienced in daily life refute the fear-mongering of Beck, Limbaugh, and their congressional lackeys.
If the GOP actually keeps its pledge to campaign on repealing the law, it will only accelerate its marginalization. The law will become increasingly popular between now and November. Some Republicans realize this, too, which is why the hedging has already begun. We’re hearing phrases like "repeal and replace" and "repeal and reform" employed by incumbents and candidates who have no intention of telling voters they want to take away their children's insurance, roll back tax cuts for small businesses, and return dictatorial powers to the insurance industry. But it’s hard to drink your tea and dilute it, too; the Republican base stands guard over its bitter brew, protecting its toxic purity.
In a shot heard round the Internet this week, David Frum famously observed that in the health debate, it was the Republicans who met their Waterloo. For his candor, he's just been canned from the free-market but hardly free-think tank American Enterprise Institute. But Frum’s verdict may prove out more thoroughly than he envisioned. As job growth catches up with the recovery, what will a Party of No, in league with extremist know-nothings, have left to say? More and more, I'm convinced that in the next Congress, they'll still be saying: "Madame Speaker."
The third, most fundamental reality is that after five decades, Barack Obama has restored the progressive presidency -- one committed to and capable of transformative leadership.
The president faced a fateful choice amid the post-Massachusetts panic; Washington wisdom nearly unanimously urged him to retreat. Instead, with the very different urging of Nancy Pelosi, he declined to adopt the Clinton model of small ideas and triangulating tactics. He fought on-- and he was right, in principle and on the politics. Indeed, it was only when Clinton himself fought back as Newt Gingrich shut down the government that his own beleaguered presidency was repositioned to claim a second term in 1996.
But Obama's comeback goes far beyond the polls. After only a year in office, he has a prodigious legacy on a historic scale: not only the largest economic recovery plan of all time that came just in time, but a health reform that finally addresses the great unfinished business of social justice in America. In addition, he has achieved something barely noticed except by discomforted lobbyists -- a wholesale reform of the college loan program to benefit students, not big banks. It was tucked into the health reconciliation measure.
Now this president who said he didn't come to office to do small things will move on to other big changes.
Next up is financial reform-- and suddenly a few Republicans like Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and New Hampshire's Judd Gregg are allowing that this time, they are ready to work with Obama and the Democrats. Of course, Corker doesn't have to run for re-election in 2010 and Gregg is retiring; they don't fear the wrath of the Obama haters. In the end, there will be enough GOP votes to pass financial reform in the filibuster-riven Senate-- if for no other reason than the political imperative of not being cast as the party of Wall Street greed and malfeasance.
Then it's on to immigration reform, which will afford the Republicans another chance to impale themselves on the electoral sword of anti-Hispanic prejudice. And the president will, later than some would wish, press the great unfinished business of equal rights-- for gay and lesbian Americans.
The battles won't be easy, but neither was negotiating a truce on abortion to save health reform. Obama's shown that he means what he says and he's determined to win. It turns out that for him change was more than a slogan. For us, it's already a reality.