March 22, 2010

By Joe Rothstein

Good morning, Americans. Today you have a right to health care.

Just as you have long had a right to a lawyer, and to education you have a right to health care. You have a right to health care, just as those living in every other developed country have long had.

In the scheme of things, what Congress finally enacted Sunday night is not very original or revolutionary. Health insurance remains a private, for-profit business. But the effort to enact even this degree of fundamental change has been one of the most longstanding political battles in U.S. history. And the way it was framed over the past 12 months you might have thought to do even this much would bring apocalyptic destruction to the U.S.

In fact, Republican House Leader John Boehner used that very word, “apocalypse,” to describe what he envisioned the result for the U.S. He said it during a Sunday morning TV talk show and again last night during the debate. So he must believe it.

I watched the spectacle of the final debate from the House press gallery most of yesterday afternoon and long into the night. Being there provided impressions not available from TV: The tension on Democrats’ faces as they watched with deepening concern their vote count stall in the low 200s with just a few minutes left to go. Could Speaker Nancy Pelosi have brought this mother-of-all political wars to the floor with too few votes to pass?

And then, within seconds, the electronic vote board ran up from 202 “yes” votes to 215. Democrats’ realization that they were on the brink of passage spread like sheet lightning across the House floor.

“One more vote,” “one more vote,” they chanted. And finally—-that one more vote lit up to insure passage, followed by three more to provide a comfort zone.

The moments leading up to the vote triggered a rowdy, slap happy, boos and cheers festival. It was much like two heavyweights who’d taken a lot of punches in a grueling marathon battle finally cutting loose before the final bell, with blood-lust crowds cheering them on.

The leaders of both sides were hailed as heroes in their final speeches: Boehner and his deputy Eric Cantor in opposition, Pelosi for the majority. Pelosi entered from the rear of the chamber, down the long aisle to the speaker’s well, to rock-star treatment by cheering Democrats. This was an entrance and treatment usually reserved for presidents and State of the Union addresses.

It’s popular to say that President Obama and the Democrats are “all in” on health care reform. There’s no denying that—the party has a lot of chips on this table. Everyone on the House floor last night knew it. But the other side of that card is true, too. The Republicans also are “all in.” For its failure.

What if by November the streets are clear of health care protesters, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have moved on to declaring immigration reform the trigger that will blow up the republic, and tens of millions of Americans are wondering, if they think about it at all, what the health care fuss was all about. For most of those now lucky enough to have good health insurance at reasonable rates nothing will have changed. For many others, the impact will be immediate and positive.

In that pre-election environment won’t John Boehner’s warnings about an “apocalypse” sound a bit loony? Won’t the uniformity of the Republican vote against health reform seem more political than responsible?

Common wisdom has it that the battle for health reform had its modern day antecedent during Harry Truman’s presidency. But a dozen years before Truman asked Congress to enact health reform, the issue was a very hot topic for Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was being pushed hard to incorporate health reform in the new Social Security program he was proposing. But in the end FDR became convinced that the only way he could squeeze Social Security through Congress was to abandon health reform. And he did.

A historical note that might apply in 2010: After Social Security was enacted in 1936 Democrats added 12 more Democrats to their already big majority in the House and 6 to the Senate.

During the vote and final debate, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan sat in one of the front row seats. He had labored in on crutches, with what appeared to be painful effort. Dingell’s the longest serving member of Congress—55 years, the third longest serving member in the history of the U.S. After passage, Dingell was mobbed by well-wishers. For 53 of Dingell’s 55 years in Congress he has introduced health reform legislation. He lived to see it finally happen.

Once the final tally was announced the Democrats broke into another spontaneous chant, “Yes, We Can.” “Yes, We Can.” You might have thought they’d emerged from March Madness winning the Final Four.

In her final speech, Speaker Pelosi proposed a corollary to Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum, “All politics is local.” Pelosi’s formulation: “All politics is personal.”

She meant that the health benefits embedded in the bill would affect all Americans personally. But she could just as well have meant that the politics of getting the bill passed was taken very personally by all House members, Democrats and Republicans alike. The Democrats believe they have accomplished a change as positive and historic as Social Security and Medicare. The Republicans believe, as Boehner said, that the bill will create an “apocalypse.”

Whether all of this drives an even bigger wedge between members of the two parties on all of the other major issues in the queue waiting for attention is a question for another day. As will voters’ judgment about whether the politics of health care justified shoving all their chips on this table.