The Fundamental Dynamic of the Health-Care Debate.

At today's Health Care Smackdown ("You'll pay for the whole seat -- but you'll only need the edge!") and in the postmortems, both sides will likely charge that the other side is being dishonest about their intentions. Democrats will say that Republicans are pretending that they are open to reform, but all they really want is to kill the bill, for reasons both substantive (they don't particularly think health care should be reformed) and political (they don't want Democrats to get a victory). For their part, Republicans will charge that Democrats pretend they are open to bipartisanship, but in truth they just want to pass their bill, and they don't care whether Republicans come along or not.

And you know what? They're both right. And in this at least, they're both taking a legitimate position. It's perfectly fine for Republicans to oppose reform -- they're the opposition, after all. And they've opposed pretty much every attempt at health-care reform in the last seven decades. That's just what they believe. On the political question, of course they don't want the president to get a huge victory. It will improve his political fortunes and those of his party -- not only making it less likely that Republicans win back Congress in the fall, but undermining their basic argument about how awful government is. There are some policy questions that are not zero-sum -- where the parties can come together to pass a piece of legislation, and everyone will benefit politically (or more often, no one will benefit, since the public never really notices). But this isn't one of those situations. At the end of this process, there will be a winner and a loser.

Not only that, there will be a big winner, and a big loser. If the bill passes, it will be one of the most important legislative victories in decades. It will mean that pretty much no matter what else happens, Barack Obama will have had a successful presidency. If the bill fails, on the other hand, Republicans will probably take back the House. Sen. Jim DeMint may have been exaggerating when he said that if they defeat health care, it will be Obama's "Waterloo" -- but only a little. While it happens to be in everyone's interest to look like they want to cooperate, it's in no one's interest to actually cooperate. So to expect either side to seek an outcome other than victory is just absurd.

Let's recall a conversation a congressional staffer relayed to The Atlantic's James Fallows a few weeks ago:

"GOP member: 'I'd like this in the bill.'

"Dem member response: 'If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?'

"GOP member: 'You know I can't vote for the bill.'

"Dem member: 'Then why should we put it in the bill?'

"I witnessed this myself."

This has been the essential dynamic of this debate for an entire year, and it has not changed. Today's event may well prove edifying, since most Americans are still uninformed or misinformed about what the Democrats' reform actually involves. But there will be only one winner in this debate.

-- Paul Waldman

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