How Obama Survived August

At the beginning of the month, I predicted that August might turn out be a bloodbath for Democrats. At the time, the Democratic self-containment on health care had dissolved, cranks were taking over constituent meetings, and that real anxiety about Obama had found a channel and political opponents of health care had an edge. And it was a bloodbath. No question: the White House was taken aback by the ferocity of the health care debate, the media was confused, activists were alarmed, and Republican enthusiasm shot up. But a funny thing happened on the way to the morgue...

The worst thing that could have happened to Democrats -- and the one thing that needed to happen in order to kill health reform -- did not happen. The Democrats held together. Moderates were not intimidated. Don't confuse their constituent meeting pander with changed minds.

Did more than a handful -- if any -- Democrats who were leaning towards voting "yes" on health care before August change their minds during August? Probably not. Another irony: the public option debate helped. It helped by offering itself up as a sacrifice. The new Maginot line, drawn by advocates of a single payer system, turned out to be a bit of a feint because it was never the sine qua non of reform. Initially, given the GOP success (aided by progressive elites who essentially agreed) in framing the option as essential to health care, its putative failure and demagoguery seemed to be a significant blow to the White House. But -- and here is the key point -- it became something for the Blue Dogs to "oppose" and thus satisfy their constituents' concerns about reform in general. Sen. Max Baucus's health care plan has been derided by many liberal activists because it seems to be a compromise upon a compromise.

For these activists, the debate itself has been damaging because it exposed the administration's willingness to give voice and legitimacy to sides in this debate that many liberal activists do not believe ought to be afforded those prerogatives, including Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, PhRMA, and the insurers. The charge that Obama didn't stand up for his principals is a hard one to rebut, but the White House would rather have the bill they're probably going to get now and worry about Netroot anxiety later. From the start, the least convincing argument made to the White House about strategy starts with the premise that compromising with recalcitrant Republicans is inherently bad.

After August, under the worst case scenario, there is majority support for the following major changes to health care: real (albeit limited) competition in the insurance industry (even absent a public plan). A cap on what a person pays for catastrophic illnesses. An end to insurance company recision policies. Guaranteed issue. A basic benefit package. Significant subsidies to help people who earn as much as $64,000 a year pay for health insurance. Better cost and coverage incentives. And lots more. Say what you will about these reforms -- maybe they're incremental -- but they're a foundation for center-left policy in the future.

After August, conservatives have exhausted their repertoire of arguments and many of their demagogic tricks. Public support for significant health care reform as something worth doing remains high. Support for Obama's plan remains unchanged -- didn't grow, certainly, but didn't decline. Support among Democrats remains at 90%. Obama's message tomorrow night will be one that dovetails with what the American people believe: it's important to get health care reform done. How will Republicans respond to his speech? Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) can trot out familiar arguments about the Republican's "plan," which is in scare quotes because it was written solely to have something to show people who asked what the Republican plan was. (If Republicans had written a serious plan, one that recognized the reality of a Democratic Congress, then I'd drop the scare quotes.)

After August, Democrats have the momentum to pass the bill. And this point, made by Jonathan Chait, is key: whatever reservations liberal House members might have about the fate of the public option, by voting against final passage of a good (if flawed) bill, they would be directly hurting the vulnerable Americans they want to protect. A health care defeat could spell the end of the Obama governing experiment, the most progressive in 40 years. As Chait says, Dems can be weak-kneed, but they're not dumb. The more I think about the events in August, the more I think of professional wrestling. Lots of chair shots, blood and taunts, plenty of theater, but at the end of the day, everyone goes back to the locker room, changes out of their tights, and goes to the bar for a drink.