Over the weekend, the Democrats got the 60 votes they needed in order to move their health care proposal onto the floor of the United States Senate for debate. A lot of good it did them. The moment faded almost immediately after key blue dog Democrats ran to the microphones to oppose any bill carrying a public option provision. The only celebration going on within Democratic circles was limited to the ranks of Panglossian optimists and congenital spinmeisters (often, one and the same.)
But this is shaping up to be a lot less than advertised. No less a party personage than the Democratic National Convention chairman Howard Dean spent Monday giving voice to the growing concern shared by Democratic activists about the way this story is unfolding. Speaking with the Huffington Post, Dean said that health care reform was in "deep trouble" and that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid likely would need a miracle to win the day.
"I didn't anticipate being in this position. I thought it would pass. Maybe Harry has some magic up his sleeve. But I don't see how he gets those four votes [Sens. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.)] without compromising the bill." Check out his on-air interview with MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan, where he offered a blunt critique of his fellow Democrats:
This rates as quite the memorable moment. Even with their commanding numerical lead in Congress, the Democrats still can't summon the necessary party discipline to pass their political agenda. Remarkably, the few Senate holdouts - or at least those playing hard-to-get - are showing the rest of Washington D.C. how the game ought be played. Louisiana's Mary Landrieu played her cards beautifully in gouging the administration for an extra $100 million for her state - and this just to get Landrieu's vote to proceed with the debate. No telling how much of a bribe she'll demand for Louisiana in order to get her to support something that even remotely resembles the health bill that Mr. Obama wants.
Watching the negotiations between the sides. Washington Monthly's Steve Benen had it right when he wrote that "Lieberman, Nelson, & Co. don't much care if this once-in-a-generation opportunity implodes, while reform advocates care very much. These rather obvious bargaining positions create a playing field that is anything but level."
The liberal-left wing of the Democratic Party's been down this road before - recalling Democratic support to authorize the use of force against Iraq - and they're afraid of another double cross. In this case, they fear that the leadership will trade away too much in order to win enough votes for passage. (Dean warned as much in his MSNBC appearance, suggesting that conservative Democrats opposing the public option are trying to turn the bill into a "hodgepodge of nonsense.")
And here's the danger for the party leadership: If the legislation bears little resemblance to the lofty promise articulated in President Obama's address to Congress last February, there's real risk that Democratic activists will sit on their hands in 2010.
If that's the case, maybe half a loaf is worse than nothing at all.