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Obama’s Mule Team

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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.


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