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Obama’s Mule Team

To pass health care, he’ll need to find a way to harness that most stubborn of species: centrist senators.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

As so often with Barack Obama, it all comes down to a speech. But for his health-care address to Congress Wednesday night, the stakes are, if anything, higher than they were when he salvaged his struggling campaign at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa in the fall of 2007, or when he stanched the bleeding over Jeremiah Wright in Philadelphia the next March.

It’s overwrought to say that if health care fails, his presidency is doomed (Bill Clinton survived, beat Gingrich on the government shutdown, and was reelected). It is accurate to say, however, that if health care fails, the nature of his presidency, its very premise, suffers a mortal blow. Ambitions will be curtailed, sights set lower. You’re going to start hearing a lot of talk about deficit reduction and personal responsibility (remember, Clinton survived by hiring Dick Morris and triangulating to the heavens). Yuck. And yawn.

The House chamber is going to be a tougher room than the ones he played in Des Moines and Philly. Republicans will be icily staring him down. Liberal Democrats will be supportive, but they’ll be leery—and if Obama does use the speech to announce that he’s dropping the public option, as some speculate, then they’ll be staring him down. Think about how that will play on the cable shows, relooped over and over for three or four days.

But the most important audience for the speech, aside from the American people, will be the one in between the above two groups. The moderate Democratic senators whose votes Obama will need, at least on cloture (the vote to proceed to the final vote), to get the thing passed. Cloture, of course, requires 60 votes, so he’ll have to get every one of them—and maybe one Republican, depending on what they get up to in Massachusetts. Even the much-discussed reconciliation route, on which cloture can’t be invoked, will require 60-vote majorities on technical points-of-order objections, which Republicans could raise by the dozens or even “hundreds,” as Senator Judd Gregg vowed recently.

So health care’s chances may well come down to this question: When push comes to shove, will centrist Democratic senators really permit a still newish Democratic president to suffer a crushing defeat that will massively embolden the right wing and likely have a major blowback effect on the whole party? It’s impossible to imagine, right? Uh, maybe not. Welcome to the United States Senate.

Two schools of thought emerged on this question as I ran it by several sources last week. Let’s start with the happy scenario.

Jim Kessler is the vice-president for policy at Third Way, a centrist think tank. Back in February, he tells me, he and his colleague Jon Cowan sat down with about ten or twelve centrist senators, many of them red-staters, to try to explain to them why their fates were tied to Obama’s whether they liked it or not. They gave the solons two quick history lessons.

The first dates to 1982. Ronald Reagan had succeeded in some legislative initiatives in his first year. But by ’82, unemployment was at 10.8 percent and the deficit was ballooning (sound familiar?). Reagan’s numbers were bad: mid-40s. Republicans facing reelection might have run from their president, but instead, Kessler says, “they stuck with him,” while Reagan himself framed the election as a referendum on his policies. Predictions were widespread that the Republicans would be crushed in the by-elections, but they held their 54 Senate seats and lost a lower-than-anticipated 27 House seats.

By contrast, in the 1994 elections, after Clinton suffered his health-care defeat, Democrats ran away from him, and he didn’t exert much leadership. You know that famous result: They lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats. The party only just recovered from that election, in 2006.

The episodes aren’t precisely parallel because Reagan didn’t take a body blow like Clinton did, but the general point is still a fair one. Republicans stood behind their president; Democrats did not, and the latter paid a dear price for it. Kessler reports that the centrists seemed to get this. But that was February, when things were rosy. What about now?

“Look, this was certainly not the greatest August if you were a Democrat,” he says. “But you did not see Democrats break ranks and run for the hills. That’s significant. Every moderate office we’ve talked to, their inclination is to try to get something done, not to try to not get something done.”

Okay, now for the pessimistic view—about which, naturally, folks were less happy to speak on the record.

Here, we take a peek inside the senatorial mind. Any senator’s chief ambition is to remain a senator. That may mean supporting your president. But it may not. If your president is a liberal, big-city African-American whose approval rating in your red state is possibly south of 40 percent, and if the vote is on a “big-government” bill that your constituents have heard features “death panels” … you get the picture. I asked a former Senate Democratic aide last week how such senators might vote, and he surprised me by saying: “If I’m a red-state senator, my deep-down preference is that we don’t even have a vote at all. Senators are the most risk-averse people on planet Earth. And there’s no risk if there’s no vote.” Nice, eh?


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