As Democrats move ever closer to the magic number of 216, it's unsurprising that the language used to describe the debate has lifted itself out of the depths of mere politics and vaulted into the realm of virtue. Courage is the most essential value. Who is the Antigone -- who built the "dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear," as Martin Luther King put it. For whom has this fight been easy? For whom has it been hard?
Whatever you believe about health care reform, it's hard to escape the conclusion that for one party, opposing reform was expedient, and for another, supporting it required the summoning of an uncommon degree of bravery and a resistance to every base political instinct. (There are plenty of Democrats who held out because they wanted something else and knew they could get it. They're not very courageous. It's easy to spot the difference.)
Why has Barack Obama risked his presidency for this crusade? Why has he spent more time on this domestic issue than any other president has spent on any other issue in recent memory? Why has he done so despite the manifest public unpopular of the case? The answer opponents will give is some variant of Obama's conviction that he must impose his solution on America no matter the cost, even to him; that his actions are part of a larger crusade; that he cannot legitimize government as an active force for good without government taking over the health care system. (Chicago politics, socialism, Saul Alinsky.) But this argument doesn't track with an argument that opponents have been desperate to make: that health care is not popular now and won't be popular in time to reward Democrats.
And it fortifies, indirectly, the argument that Obama is uniquely courageous: his stubborness in the face of public opinion, in the face of advisers who begged him to move on, in the face of a revolt from his base, is based upon his own conviction that what he's doing is the right thing to do, primarily, and upon electoral politics secondarily.
Ronald Brownstein makes it clear
that he believes Obama exemplifies the virtue:
Win or lose, Obama has pursued health care reform as tenaciously as any president has pursued any domestic initiative in decades. Health care has now been his presidency's central domestic focus for a full year. That's about as long as it took to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, originally introduced by John F. Kennedy and driven home by Lyndon Johnson. Rarely since World War II has a president devoted so much time, at so much political cost, to shouldering a single priority through Congress. It's reasonable to debate whether Obama should have invested so heavily in health care. But it's difficult to quibble with Emanuel's assessment that once the president placed that bet, "He has shown fortitude, stamina, and strength."
It is. All the more so if you oppose the legislation, if you think it will break the parts of the health care system that work, if you think it will bankrupt the country down the road. You ought to be mighty frustrated by Obama's courage, blind as you believe it might be. But don't ever, ever call the guy a wimp.
In this vein: I'd make the case that Harry Reid is extremely courageous. He may well lose his Senate seat because he labored to find 60 votes in the Senate for an unpopular health care bill.
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is an Atlantic
contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One
, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week