Voters may have tossed out the Democrats a few weeks back, but it was about a year ago during the healthcare debate when President Obama and the Democratic congressional majority squandered their goodwill with the public and set the stage for the party’s 2010 losses.
It’s not that Americans don’t like the changes and benefits in the healthcare law. They do, and even those who gripe and complain now won’t want to give them up down the road.
No, what irritated Americans, even many Democratic Party supporters, is the way Democrats in Washington – including President Obama – went about passing the healthcare law, and that sour feeling has sullied even the most popular accomplishments that have come from Congress and the Obama White House these past two years.
Think about what inspired Americans to vote for Barack Obama in 2008. They saw him as a man of ethics and principle who rejected Washington gamesmanship and promised us a better and cleaner form of politics. When he told us there wasn’t a red America or a blue America but rather one America, when he pledged to change the way Washington works, we took it as code that he would not play the usual political games that benefited the few at the expense of the many and so alienated Americans from their government. And since the Democrats in Congress were his partners, we took it on faith that they would be better and more virtuous too.
But then the President and the Democratic majority fell into a trap the Republicans set for them. By essentially opposing everything the President put forth, the GOP baited Senate Democrats to hold what was then their sixty vote Senate majority against a threatened Republican filibuster.
So rather than craft a bill that simply needed a majority vote, which was possible under Senate rules, the Democrats flexed their hubris muscles to maintain their sixty vote bloc and show their GOP adversaries who’s boss. All it took were a few sweetheart deals to get a couple of conservative senators on board. No one would notice, right?
Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson took advantage of his highly prized vote by striking a deal to exempt his state and his state alone from paying for an expansion of Medicaid. The good senator saved Nebraskans $100 million, but the problem was that his cozy arrangement transferred the cost onto the rest of us – a rather expensive vote for healthcare reform.
Then there’s Senator Mary Landrieu, who secured a princely sum for her Louisiana, and when a reporter pressed her on whether she had sold her vote for healthcare reform for a reported $100 million, she indignantly replied “it’s not $100 million, it’s $300 million, and I’m proud of it and will keep fighting for it.” Nor were they the only two.
Call it the arrogance of power or the power of arrogance, but the bottom line is this: Americans resent unchecked power and believe it corrupts. It’s the spirit behind our Constitution – a balance of powers, checks and balances. These backroom deals seemed exactly like the bad old stuff, an abuse of power, a legal but odious form of political corruption. It turned potentially good legislation into tainted legislation. Wasn’t that the opposite of what the President promised in 2008?
Democratic leaders tried to explain it away as a mere political means to a desired end: “That’s what this legislation’s all about – it’s the art of compromise,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at the time. And President Obama seemed to be sitting back and letting it all go on.
Perhaps in the days before the prairie fire communication of social media and the Internet, these deals would have passed unnoticed. But now even the slightest hint of hypocrisy generates millions of outraged mouse clicks.
So here’s a president who claimed the mantle of idealism, yet his idealism seemed to come at an unseemly price. It didn’t sit well with Americans, and it the took away the glow of principle that he had promised his presidency would be all about.
It also stripped the virtue away from the Democratic Party’s governing philosophy. To many Americans, politics and government are one and the same, so if politics could be so corrupt and ugly and self-serving and reckless, then maybe government itself wasn’t the answer to our ills. So Democrats who had a chance to restore government’s image ended up staining it for years to come.
The funny thing is that the healthcare law benefits so many Americans in so many ways. And many of these sordid deals were ultimately stripped from the final bill. But by wheeling and dealing so blatantly and shamelessly, it undermined public confidence and made President Obama and his Democratic allies seem no better than the rest of them.
And as a result, those already predisposed to dislike government and the President were fired up to vote this year, which they did in huge and disproportionate numbers. And those hoping for a new era of untainted, idealistic politics found little reason to get back involved – and many stayed home.
Healthcare reform could have been a game-changing and even realigning political victory for the Democrats and the President. Instead it ended up undermining the very principles that the American people entrusted the Democrats and the President to uphold. We’ll be living with the consequences for years to come.
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written on American politics and culture for major newspapers and magazines, and is currently the director of the Public Communications department at American University.