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When 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)