The Two Overlooked Massachusetts Casualties

The casualty list from last night's Massachusetts disaster is long and sobering, but I don't think in the end that it will include health-care reform. Any number of Democrats may fear passing the bill for which they've already voted, but the consequences of not passing it will be far worse: a near-total collapse of turnout from the Democratic base in the November elections. (If Barney Frank truly wants to start over, as he suggested last night, then Barney Frank should be primaried.)

Besides, the Democrats don't need 60 Senate votes to complete their job. They need only win a majority in the House for the Senate bill, in conjunction with legislation, passed through the budget reconciliation process that requires just 51 Senate votes, that reflects the compromises on funding and benefits that House and Senate Democrats have already reached.

The problem is all the other legislation that has been waiting in the wings while the Senate dithered on health-care reform that does require 60 votes for passage. If the fate of Earth depends on the enactment of climate-change legislation, well, so much for the fate of Earth. Lindsay Graham may have been willing to meet John Kerry halfway to deal with global warming before the Massachusetts vote, but it's hard to imagine that either he or a sufficient number of Democrats want to take up the issue now.

So, too, with two causes that are not only necessary to restore our economic vitality and political equality but that unequivocally benefit the long-term prospects of the Democratic Party: labor-law reform and immigration reform. Since the mid-1970s, the Democrats have known that American business has routinely violated the National Labor Relations Act with impunity, since the penalties for, say, illegally firing the leader of an organizing campaign are negligible. They have known that private-sector unions have lost the ability to grow and that as unions' numbers have declined, so have certain key sectors of the Democratic electorate. (On average, unionized white men vote Democratic at a rate 20 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts.)

But precisely because fixing the holes in labor law so clearly benefits the Democrats, it only becomes possible when Democrats control the White House and have big congressional majorities. In 1979, when a little more than 20 percent of the private-sector work force was still unionized, the Democrats came within one vote of changing the law. In 1994, when about 15 percent of that work force still belonged to unions, the issue was deferred until after the midterm elections -- when the Democrats lost control of the House. In 2009, when just 7 percent of private-sector workers belonged to unions, the issue was set to be taken up after health care finally passed, and Senate Democrats believed they'd hammered out compromise language that could have united their caucus in support of reform.

So much for that. If it takes another dozen years for the issue to come back on the agenda, private-sector unions -- and with them, any prospect of restoring broadly shared prosperity in America -- may have all but disappeared.

Immigration reform was always something of a long shot while unemployment remained at its highest levels since the Great Depression. Now, with the influence of the ultra-right in the GOP greater than it's been in a very long time, it's hard to imagine any GOP senators crossing over to help Democrats create a path for undocumented immigrants to become citizens, and just as hard to imagine the Democrats willing to take that risk unilaterally, even though the millions of Latinos such a move would bring into the electorate would surely tilt heavily Democratic at the polls.

Nor is it a given that the Democrats will be able to get the votes in the Senate to pass stricter bank regulations or a further stimulus program to offset state-government cutbacks and boost infrastructure construction. But these are fights that the Obama administration is indicating it wants to take on -- on bank regulations, more than it has in its first year -- because they are causes it wants to take to the voters. (Should the president embrace Paul Volcker's support for re-enacting Glass-Steagall (and he should), he would have at least one Republican ally: John McCain, who has co-authored a bill to do just that.) Blue Dogs and New Dogs who have cut their own deals with the banks may insist that the Democrats, out of fear of over-regulation and increasing the deficit, should do nothing, but it's hard to imagine a course more injurious to both the nation and their party. If nothing else, they provide an answer to Hillel's second question: If I am only for myself, who am I? The answer is, center-right Democrats.

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