A Health-Care Victory At Last

At long, long last, the health-care reform fight is finally over. We have no idea how Barack Obama's presidency will turn out at the end, but we know this: He accomplished something that stubbornly eluded Democratic presidents -- and even one Republican -- for decades. The remainder of his term could be a string of defeats and disasters, yet it cannot be taken from him that he passed this nearly impossible test of skill, patience, vision, and sheer will.

Over the course of this debate, progressives have gotten used to beginning their comments on the various reform plans by saying, "It's not everything that I'd want, but…." And of course the bill that finally passed isn't perfect, which is why we should continue working to improve it in the coming months and years. But it is something extraordinary nevertheless. The passage of health-care reform is a huge benefit to lower- and middle-class Americans; finally, there is something resembling health security for all of us. Some of the most despicable misdeeds of the insurance companies have been put to an end, and a raft of programs have been put in place to help rein in costs. And that's just a few of the legislation's achievements. Millions upon millions of American lives will be improved by what Congress and the White House just did.

This effort will be remembered as one of the most anguished legislative battles in history, alongside the Civil Rights Act, the Federal Reserve Act, the creation of Medicare, and a few others. The positive outcome is not enough to restore one’s faith in the American political system, because the process did so much to destroy that faith. American politics has never been particularly reasonable or reasoned, but this debate saw a plague of demagoguery, fear-mongering, and outright lies that puts anything most of us can remember to shame.

Yet despite the new frontiers of obstruction Republicans explored, despite the fervent labors of thousands of lobbyists to bend the legislation to their will, despite all the television ads and angry rallies and shaking of fists, the obstacles were overcome in the end.

Often, the American distrust of government sometimes seems immune to refutation by government's success, a perennial source of frustration for progressives. But we should not be too disheartened if the success of this reform does little to undo that distrust. Republicans condemned "government-run health care," and talk-radio hosts warned of impending socialist tyranny – and they will continue to do so as they try to discredit the reform. But when you get irritated by the latest bloviating from the right, remind yourself: On the most important domestic debate in decades, they lost, and we won.

Democrats will certainly see political benefits. The fact that they achieved such a difficult victory will go a long way toward making them look less like the losers they so often seem to be. And in time, the health-care win will make life just a bit harder for their opponents; just as Republicans now twist themselves in knots pretending to support Medicare – that socialized system of government insurance – they will pretend that they supported this reform all along a decade or two from now. But even when the new health-care system matures and people enjoy the security it has brought, it probably won't dramatically alter the distrust of government so prevalent in our nation. We have not seen the last of the senior-citizen town-hall attendee, Social Security check in hand, telling government to keep its greedy hands off his Medicare.

As the debate approached its end, congressional Democrats realized that whatever political risk there was in passing a controversial plan, the effect of abandoning reform would have been utter disaster. Some would have voted in favor of reform no matter what, but more than a few were led down the right path only when their most craven self-interest pointed the way. And how many politicians did we come to know through this process, and not for the better? We learned more about Sarah Palin, Joe Lieberman, Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, Chuck Grassley, Blanche Lincoln, Bart Stupak, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and dozens more than a million speeches and position papers could ever have told us. Yet for every despicable or disappointing performance, there was an inspiring one to match it, even if many escaped notice. There were people who worked incredibly hard to find good policy that could overcome the political hurdles. Even at times when cowardice ran through Congress like a flesh-eating virus, there were those who found the kind of courage every politician claims to have. We should remember both those who acquitted themselves shamefully and those who did so admirably during this debate.

I have a fantasy that goes like this. A societal problem becomes acute, and there is a general acknowledgment that it must be addressed. Policy-makers explore the problem, seeking to understand it as much as possible. They might even look to see if other countries have successfully dealt with the problem, and if so, how they did it. Then, they begin to formulate possible solutions and debate the merits of each. Although there are disagreements, they are dealt with respectfully and honestly. Some of these disagreements can be resolved and some can't, but in the end, as befits a democracy, the necessary votes are taken, and one course of action is chosen. Because the deliberative process was a good one, the chosen solution ultimately goes a long way toward solving the problem, and the country is better for it.

That's not what happened with health-care reform, and it's unlikely that any important question will be handled that way in the foreseeable future. I wish there were something we could do about that, but a respectful and honest legislative process requires the cooperation of both parties. That cooperation is just not something we're going to get from today's GOP. Republicans showed themselves emphatically to be a party whose cynicism knows few limits, and who will embrace any deceit they think will win them momentary advantage. They showed themselves to be a party that can look at people who suffer so terribly under the current system, and say, "Tough luck."

And after all the shouting and protesting and maneuvering, after all the hearings and filibusters and votes, those people are the ones whom this whole fight was all about. Yesterday, a man lost his job, and with it, his health benefits. Yesterday, a family was denied coverage because their child has a chronic illness. Yesterday, a woman was kicked off her insurance after she was diagnosed with cancer. Yesterday, a couple declared bankruptcy, because after they met their "lifetime limit" of coverage, they couldn't afford to pay their medical bills. All of those injustices happen every day in America, because our current insurance system is one so cruel and immoral that no civilized country would tolerate it.

Yet tolerate it we did, for far too long. But now we have said "enough," and overcome those who saw all that suffering and shrugged their shoulders – or worse, saw only the potential to profit off their fellow Americans' misery. At last, they were beaten. Despite all the ugliness of the process, and whatever other outrages politics will bring in the months to come, in this at least, we know that tomorrow will be better than yesterday.

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