Aah, Certitude!

89717.jpgWhen one plays for high stakes, the palms get sweaty, the mouth goes dry, the heart pumps faster. The brain may become foggy or focused but the risk of choking, making a wrong move, grows as the tension mounts. But of course that depends on one's recognizing that it's a high-stake game.

In ordinary circumstances, a legislative showdown like last weekend's House vote on changes in the nation's health care system would have set many a legislator's nerves tingling in anticipation and dread. No matter how strongly one believed that the path chosen was the right one, it would be hard to escape the knowledge that there might be a price to be paid for supporting - or opposing - such a monumental restructuring. In John F. Kennedy's classic, "Profiles in Courage," senators were deemed courageous precisely because they acted in accordance with their own values or judgments, fully cognizant of the fact that in doing so they placed at risk their own careers.

Ironically, both those who voted for the legislation Nancy Pelosi took to the House floor and those who vigorously opposed it not only believed themselves correct in their positions (that is usually the case, since few legislators actually vote against their own beliefs regardless of political science "re-election" theory), they also seemed certain that they were doing precisely what the populace wanted them to do.

Liberals did not vote to reshape the health care delivery and financing systems because they believed they knew better than the voters what the country needed; they believed they were doing exactly what the voters demanded. Many, in fact, believed they were likely to be punished at the polls if they failed to deliver such reforms. Some thought the public demanded even more.  And on the other side, conservatives rejoiced in the strongly-held belief that liberals would be soundly repudiated for their action and lose their majorities in both the House and Senate; to Republicans, the health care vote seemed a godsend that would return them to power.

For nearly a year, observers had watched as polls showed first one opinion then another about every major element in the health care debate: the public demanded or resisted a government-run program to compete with private insurance companies; voters worried that the Obama-Pelosi proposals would increase the deficit or believed they would finally reduce both the deficit and health care costs. Inside the Congress, however, all players believed what they wanted to believe. Saturday night, Democrats locked in their control of government or handed the future to Republicans; Republicans gloated as Democrats overplayed their hand and prepared to regain power or they merely sealed the GOP's reputation as the party of "no". In either case, there is no hand-wringing: oblivious to the possibility of having misread the electorate, both sides march forward with the confidence only certitude can bring. 

(Photo: Jim Watson/Getty Images)

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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