Twenty years ago, when he was trying to persuade Bill and Hillary Clinton that universal health care was a politically unrealistic goal, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan repeated one insistent warning: Sweeping, historic laws don’t pass barely. “They pass 70-to-30,’’ he said, “or they fail.”
Four years ago, when he was trying to persuade Barack Obama that he would pay a terrible price for jamming health care reform through a reluctant Congress on a partisan vote, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel begged his boss to settle for a vastly scaled-down plan.
We now know what happened: Obama’s bill made history — and caused all-out political war….
…[T]he president has fair ground for accusing the House GOP of shutting down the government “over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans,” as he did on Tuesday. But he could have predicted that his own crusade to bring them coverage would unleash the political whirlwind that is now likely to last for years to come — whatever the merits of his cause. And Republicans are doing their best to make sure no one forgets that he rammed through the health law with Democratic support alone.
“You reap what you sow,” said Whit Ayres, the veteran Republican pollster. “When you force through a major and very significant change to our economy, and you do it on a pure party-line vote, and at the very end change the rules to cram it through, you simply set up a long-term political battle that will never end.”
Robert Blendon, a health policy expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, offered a less partisan but equally pungent analysis. “The long-term future of bills that have absolutely no minority support and are not popular when passed is not good,” he said. “This law is vulnerable not just for this week, but for the 2014 elections, and if not then, for whenever the minority party does become the majority.”
…No major law of the 20th century — not Medicare, nor the 1957, 1964 and 1965 civil rights and voting rights acts, nor the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act nor Social Security — passed the Congress by anything like the narrow, partisan margin of Obamacare. The Senate approved that 60-39 — a virtual squeaker by that chamber’s modern standards — and the House by just seven votes, 219-212.
Perhaps only the progressive income tax, which the Senate approved by a vote of 44-37 in 1913, had such a narrow margin of support. And, not coincidentally, it is the one measure among all those landmark laws that remains the subject of the liveliest debate a century later….
…Democrats outlined their goals in terms almost as obdurate as those voiced by Republicans now seeking to overturn or scale back the law.
“We will go through the gate,” then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in January 2010. “If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we will pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed.”
…Last week, Obama mocked the extremism of his critics, noting that one state legislator — Rep. William O’Brien (R-N.H.) — had called the Affordable Care Act the greatest intrusion on personal liberty since the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That infamous measure required states that had once harbored escaped slaves to return them to their Southern owners. It outraged the North and helped lead to the Civil War.
But just for the record, even though 20 senators declined to vote on that noxious law, it still passed the Senate 27-12.