Recess is war by other means. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said he wants to make health care Obama’s “Waterloo.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi summoned Democrats to the ramparts to defend against “carpet-bombing, slash and burn, shock and awe.” The Washington Post described an Indiana Blue Dog’s next few weeks as “the battle of Baron Hill.” Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic suggested that “the guns of August” will make this the recess to end all recesses, “where reform will be won or lost.”
The government isn’t about to take away your health insurance—but Republicans seem determined to take away your summer vacation. As grass-roots armies have marched into battle at town meetings and shopping malls across the country, fake troops sometimes get in the way of real ones. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that conservative activists surrounded Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett at an Austin supermarket, preventing him from talking to a young man who wanted help applying to the military service academies. Shark Week warned us not to go into the water; during Health Month, it’s no longer safe to go to the store.
Health care has always been the Middle East of domestic policy, and after the lulling calm of six months of relative ceasefire, all this renewed fighting has left some proponents a little shell-shocked. If health reform were a baseball team, it would be the Chicago Cubs—coming up short so many times that even its most devoted fans assume every bad bounce is the beginning of another season-ending swoon. Add to that Democrats’ recurring nightmare of misinformation metastasizing in Augusts gone by, from the Pledge of Allegiance flap that sunk a vacationing Mike Dukakis in 1988 to the Swift Boat ads that doomed the Kerry campaign in 2004.
But for once, the long-suffering health care faithful can take heart and need not panic: Health care reform remains a good bet. If supporters keep their heads while others don’t and the president continues to center the debate on what’s really at stake, reform will still cross the finish line this year.
Legislatively, health care reform’s prospects are further along than ever before. The remaining policy differences, as Ezra Klein points out, are relatively narrow and far from irreconcilable.
Most important, the political hay-making in town halls and the legislative sausage-making that preceded it obscure a deeper consensus: Virtually all Democrats in Congress want to get health care reform done, and most Americans support the outlines of what they’re trying to do. For all the passionate arguments over a few particulars, congressional Democrats across the spectrum want to pass a bill, not kick it down the road or try to make the issue go away. The Battle of Baron Hill is a good sign that health reform is winning: Rep. Hill already voted for the energy and commerce bill and stands by Obama’s approach on the stump.
Down the stretch, Democrats still need to close the deal on health care—and the president was right to hit the stump and recognize that the cacophony in Congress can’t win the debate for him. While Washington tends to go weak when polls wobble, Obama is a voice of reassuring calm. Already, he has helped lower the temperature, rebut the rumors, and focus the debate on the overriding imperative to pass health care reform because too many families and businesses will be sunk without it.
If anything, the guns of August may help unite Democrats in September. Anyone who was spoiling for battle imagining that this debate would be easy is under no such illusions now.
Obama’s strategy has been not to draw lines in the sand or make the perfect the enemy of the good. Now that the conservative ambush has suddenly appeared, it’s a big advantage not to be riding into a box canyon. Health care reform will survive the recess to end all recesses—and in a long war that has claimed as many casualties as health care, that’s a victory in itself.