Can Democrats govern?
It's worth taking a step back from health-care reform for a second. What Democrats are doing isn't just abandoning a particular policy issue. They're proving themselves unable to govern.
Democrats spent most of 2009 with 60 votes in the Senate and about 256 in the House. They had a popular new president who was following a disastrous Republican administration and a financial crisis. The opposition party was polling somewhere between foot fungus and spoiled meat. You don't get opportunities like this very often. The Senate majority, in fact, was larger than either party had enjoyed since the 1970s. And what have Democrats accomplished?
Well, not much. You can see a list here. A stimulus that was too small. Ted Kennedy's Serve America Act. Credit card regulations that were largely an acceleration of rules the Federal Reserve was going to impose anyway. I guess they almost passed a compromised health-care bill, but you don't go down in history for almosts.
If Democrats abandon health-care reform in the aftermath of Brown's victory, the lesson will be that they can't govern. No majority within the realm of reason will give them the votes to move their agenda swiftly and confidently. Even the prospect of the most significant legislative achievement in 40 years, an achievement that will save hundreds of thousands of lives, will not keep them from collapsing into chaos when they face adversity.
At that point, what's the pitch for voting for Democrats? That they agree with you? A plumber and I both agree that my toilet should work. But if he can't make it work, I'm not going to pay him any money or invite him into my home. Governance isn't just about ideology. It's also about competence and will. That's where Democrats are flagging.
You could argue that it's not fair to brand "Democrats" as at fault here. There's something to that. The leadership and the president would happily pass and sign legislation. But a party is as a party does. Democrats often run on the need to have enough votes to act. If they can't act even with those votes, then there's a real problem. Would Republicans be so terrorized if they were in a similar circumstance? The GOP forged ahead with its attempts to impeach Bill Clinton even after voters cut them down for it in the 1998 election. Those were some odd priorities, but at least the party was committed to the agenda it ran on. Democrats may not want to go quite that far in terms of party discipline, but they need to get a whole lot further than they are now.
Update Comments on this post are back up, I think. Sorry about that.
January 21, 2010; 4:12 PM ET
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