Obama’s Mule Team

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?

So now, let’s get to the names. Nebraska’s Ben Nelson is universally considered the wobbliest Democrat of them all. He’s a former insurance-company executive from a deep-red state who faces reelection in 2012 (i.e., when Obama will be at the top of the ticket). Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is next. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Michael Bennet (new guy) from Colorado and Evan Bayh of Indiana (these are blue states, but were red for ages until 2008). One source added Bill Nelson of Florida—all those senior citizens. And another added that though he’ll probably be there in the end, you never quite know with Joe Lieberman these days; he says some funny things.

Ben Nelson’s spokesman, Jake Thompson, was pretty mum. “He usually votes for cloture,” Thompson told me, “but he doesn’t want people to consider him an automatic yes vote.” In other words, his boss plans on keeping us guessing.

The irony here is this: The very legislators who are most likely to desert Obama for fear of their states’ conservative voters are also most likely to suffer if Obama experiences a major defeat. That is, Chuck Schumer and Jerry Nadler aren’t going to be voted out of office if the Democratic Party implodes. They’re safe. Landrieu is not. If there’s going to be a Democratic wipeout in 2010, it’s going to hit the Blue Dogs, not the blue districts and states.

I’m sure every red-state Democratic senator is sitting on polling showing that their voters want them to vote against Obama. What polls can’t show them is how bad the damage will be to the party—to them—if health care fails. “The president will have to work real hard to keep them together,” says a senior Senate Democratic aide.

Then there are the liberals in the House. Last week, Nadler warned of “a very big split” in the party if Obama doesn’t press senators to back a public option. It doesn’t have 51 votes right now; maybe 47, 48. Close watchers tell me it’s hard to see who else might be persuadable.

In the end, I’d guess liberals will grit their teeth and vote for passage if they feel Obama hasn’t ignored them or taken them for granted. The moderates are a harder bunch.

“We have to help them with this,” says Ohio Democratic senator Sherrod Brown. He wants provisions to take effect quickly so that, one hopes, citizens can see a positive impact. That, he argues, will help moderates in tough races next year.

But he also says, “They have to show some courage.” He voted for Clinton’s budget and crime bill when he was in the House. He thinks the crime-bill vote cost him two or three points because of the gun issue, but he survived and flourished.

“I have trouble believing that my most conservative colleagues, even the ones least interested in progressive principles, even those not considered team players, want to stand in the way of the most important domestic thing we will do in this Congress in probably the next ten years,” Brown says. “It’s also my optimism talking, maybe. But I really believe it.”

Feel better?

E-mail: mtomasky@aol.com.

Obama’s Mule Team