Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

If you want to know why the Democrats can’t seem to get their act together and pass health-care legislation, I invite you to look at things as they do, through numbers—their own and the president’s. If you do, you can see why some of them are nervous. Walt Minnick, for example, has every right to be jumpy. He’s a Democratic member of Congress from the First District of Idaho. A first-termer, he won his district—represented by Republicans since1994—with 50.61 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, John McCain beat Barack Obama in the district by a whopping 62 to 36 percent.

Bobby Bright, down in Alabama—slightly shakier still. He won his seat with 50.23 percent, while Obama lost the district by about the same margin as Minnick’s. So several are legitimately scared.

But if you really study this question, you begin to notice something. For every narrow win by a Democrat in a district that McCain carried, there were roughly four landslides. Exactly 49 Democrats won seats in House districts where McCain outpolled Obama. More than four-fifths won their races by more than ten points—and the clear majority of those were on the happy side of out-and-out massacres.

Collin Peterson, the rural Minnesotan who was so pleased with himself for weakening the cap-and-trade bill? He won in 2008 with 72 percent of the vote. Mike Ross of Arkansas, who has led the Blue Dogs’ demand to put the brakes on health-care legislation? No Republican even challenged him in the election.

But ye gods! He got only 86 percent of the vote. No doubt the 14 percent who held out on him are daily plotting his demise.

You chuckle. But this is how these people actually think. They live in quaking fear of the fact that their district went for McCain. They are certain that any tax, even on people making $1 million a year, of whom there may be a total of fourteen in their districts, equals their death warrant. They get mail from the nuts in their district who shriek that Obama hasn’t produced a birth certificate, and they convince themselves that everyone feels that way.

Meanwhile: There are 34 Republicans from districts Obama won. This disease, this terror of their own party, seems not to have infiltrated their systems—witness the total GOP unanimity against the stimulus bill.

Why the difference? Culture, DNA, reflex, years of ideological conditioning: As legislators, Democrats like Peterson and Ross have known only an era of conservative dominance. They’ve been conditioned to respond accordingly.

The Blue Dogs can’t act, or vote, like Jerry Nadler. Stipulated; accepted. They should be given plenty of wiggle room. Understood. But they’re missing a more important part of the calculation. They’re Democrats with, for once, a large Democratic majority and a Democratic president. And going against the president on this issue will have reverberations far beyond the medical system. If the Democrats fail on health care again, 2010 could very well be a bloodbath (a GOP pickup of 40 seats would put them back in charge of the House; in 1994, they won 54).

The Blue Dogs in both the House and the Senate may believe that by opposing the president on health care they can save their own seats, and they may even be right—but with a president who’s had his Waterloo and without the power of a large majority, the seats will not be worth much. Because what do they truly get out of hanging around Washington in a minority party with a weak president? And oh, by the way, there are their constituents, in these mainly rural and somewhat poor districts, who just might, you know, benefit from health-care reform.

This really is a case where if the Democrats don’t stand together, they will fall apart. And if they fall apart because a few red-district legislators who routinely crush their opposition can’t buck up the courage to cast one vote, because they know it means they’ll actually have to go out and raise a little money and campaign for a change instead of coasting to their 74 percent, then we have more than a health-care crisis on our hands. We’ll have complete dysfunction.

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