Last night the Democratic party’s fumbling attempt at reforming the American healthcare system rounded the final turn and began limping toward the finish line. With the victory of Republican Scott Brown in the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the late Ted Kennedy, the Democrats have fallen short of the 60 votes they needed to preempt a filibuster. We can now reasonably predict the efforts at reform, which dominated the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, will come to nothing.
The Democrats have no one but themselves to blame. The talking heads deployed by the party to parse the election results have pinned the loss on their candidate pretty much unanimously, but the problem goes way beyond one woman running for a U.S. Senate seat. Martha Coakley was a poor candidate, sure. She was a reluctant campaigner, and she pissed off Boston Red Sox fans — never a smart tactic in New England. But her blowing a seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls and losing to a pandering dope like Scott Brown isn’t the point. It shouldn’t have mattered. Healthcare reform should have been wrapped up long before now. Hell, if the Democrats had demonstrated a modicum of competence over the last year, this would have come to the floor while Ted Kennedy was still around to cast his vote, and yesterday’s election to replace him would have been a non-factor.
Instead, what might have been a stirring, sweeping transformation of America’s expensive and inhumane healthcare system has become an object lesson in how to fuck up a mandate. The momentum and enthusiasm that swept Barack Obama into the White House only one year ago has ebbed, a year of delays, concessions and compromises reducing a tidal wave to a gentle ripple.
Having lost their 3/5 majority in the Senate, the Democrats now have three options, each just as pitiful as the others. First, they can attempt to maintain their supermajority through some nefarious means — by refusing to seat Scott Brown until after a vote on the healthcare bill, or persuading a member of the Republican caucus to cross the aisle and vote with them. Second, they can water down an already weak bill even further to enable its passage in a Senate with 41 Republicans. Third, they can give up entirely. At this point, I don’t think it makes a difference which way they go. Healthcare reform has been botched so horribly that any pyrrhic victory the Democrats might manage to pull out won’t be worth a hell of a lot more than an outright defeat anyway.
Today the president said that “jamming something through” before Brown is seated ought to be off the table. Congressman Anthony Weiner, one of the few Democrats who openly advocated for true reform — that is, ideally, a single-payer system, but at the very least a low-cost publicly funded insurance plan — has said that the reform effort is probably dead. Part of the responsibility rests with Obama himself, who left the crucial work of crafting healthcare reform legislation entirely in the hands of the infamously inept congressional Democrats, and seemingly made no effort toward achieving the level of transparency that he repeatedly promised for the negotiations surrounding the bills in the House and Senate. A huge portion of the blame belongs with those useless and ineffectual Democrats themselves, who time and again showed more concern for their own political careers than for the people they were elected to represent. Whatever culpability is left over can be assigned to the likes of Sarah Palin, and the Becks and Hannitys and Levins who celebrated and disseminated distortions and out-and-out lies like “death panels” and “they want to pull the plug on grandma” to millions of eagerly gullible rubes.
Two people who don’t deserve much blame are Martha Coakley and Scott Brown. For all their myriad individual shortcomings, neither one of them killed healthcare reform. Thanks to the Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives, who lacked both courage and convictions, reform was dead long before yesterday’s special election was decided.