How you think about many immediate issues facing the country should hinge on your expectations about the future. Consider the battle shaping up this fall over the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees, particularly the three he has nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—Patricia Millett, Cornelia Pillard, and Robert Wilkins. Control of the D.C. Court is important in itself, but the bigger issue is the willingness of Senate Democrats to restrict use of the filibuster and revamp the ground rules in an institution that has often obstructed liberal reform.
Compromise is often an unhappily revealing art. “Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be. But compromises tell us who we are,” the philosopher Avishai Margalit writes. In finding compromises with Republicans on the federal budget, Democrats need to remember not only who they are but who the voters depend on them to be.
Last November, Democrats seemed to be justified in believing that their party had won a victory of genuine significance. The ideological differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were clear-cut, and Obama was re-elected. Despite the advantage that Republicans initially enjoyed in Senate races, Democrats increased their majority to 55, and that new majority is more liberal than the old one. In races for the House, more voters cast ballots for Democratic than for Republican candidates, though Republicans kept their majority thanks in large part to gerrymandered districts.
Just after Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010, Joe Biden came up to him and, thinking they were out of range of the microphone, said to the president, “This is a big fucking deal.” If I understand the concept of a BFD in the technical sense that Biden must have had in mind, it’s a historic reform that changes America in a fundamental way. Presidents have other imperative responsibilities, such as upholding the Constitution, keeping the nation safe from foreign threats, and promoting a strong economy. As critical as those are, they are not BFDs; a president who does all those things will probably get re-elected yet receive only brief mention in the history books. To be celebrated by future generations requires the accomplishment of substantial change with enduring benefit. In the language of the political scientist James MacGregor Burns, that is the work of a transformational leader, not merely a transactional one.
The verdict of the Supreme Court upholding nearly all of the Affordable Care Act is a victory to be savored in the full knowledge that it may be only temporary and includes potentially damaging changes in constitutional interpretation.
It is a victory, first of all, for the millions of people excluded from health insurance who stand to gain protection despite their medical history or low incomes.
It is a victory for the rule of law in the face of a group of partisan conservative justices who want to immobilize federal power in social policy.
It is a victory for the millions of people who have struggled for decades to achieve equal access to health care.