A Winning Strategy for Democrats

If you want to understand what passing health-care reform means for the Democrats' political situation, all you need to do is look back at the headlines. Yesterday, POLITICO, the high-octane rag that drives the D.C. news cycle, ran a story called "Timing right for Democrats' midterm election hopes." Just two months ago, a piece on health-care politics was flagged "Sour swing voters desert Democrats."

What changed during the interval between the two stories? The Democrats demonstrated they could stand on their principles. While the election of Scott Brown to the Senate seat from Massachusetts and the elimination of the illusory filibuster-proof majority sent most of establishment D.C. into paroxysms, a few observers – notably the New Republic's Jonathan Chait – argued that the election did little to alter the structure of the debate. The only real difference between January and March was that the Democrats decided to pass the bill. The party of indecision finally figured out it wanted something, and got it.

This assertiveness should be an object lesson going forward: Americans love success, as Markos Moulitsas observed when a post-passage poll showed 49 percent of Americans in support of the bill, with only 40 percent opposed. The press loves it, too. The Obama team hasn't always maintained its campaign stance of ignoring the daily news cycle, but it clearly understands that the media will happily concede "momentum" to whichever party brings a confident focus on the big picture.

Meanwhile, Republicans are saying they won't work with Democrats anymore, whatever that means in a congressional session that has seen record-breaking obstruction. Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the Republicans most willing to negotiate with the White House, has scuttled an immigration compromise he developed. His old friend, Sen. John McCain, is scuttling everything. "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year," McCain said. "They have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it."

McCain can rest easy with his procedural complaints. After this week's Senate vote on budget reconciliation, which is expected to finalize the health-care reforms and pass a major overhaul of the government's higher-education funding scheme, Democrats will be limited by the filibuster rule in the Senate. That means they'll need bipartisan support to take a vote on anything Republicans find disagreeable, an ever-expanding category of legislation that requires quantum physics to understand -- that Republicans can be both for and against Medicare cuts is basically a Schrodinger's Cat scenario.

What does this Republican threat mean for the rest of the Democratic agenda going forward? While some progressives hope to see movement on energy and immigration legislation, Democrats' new top priority is another regulatory project aimed at cleaning up excesses in the financial sector, eliminating unnecessary government support for banks, and protecting investors and consumers. Negotiations around the bill have been tense, and the legislation was just passed out of committee by a party-line ballot, although many provisions in the bill were drawn from Republican ideas opposed by reformers. In these ways, financial reform is a lot like health-care reform, actually.

If Democrats want to replicate their health-care success, the best strategy for strong reform is to bring a tough bill to the floor and dare Republicans to filibuster it. I find it hard to believe that moderate Republicans will join their party to oppose a package of essentially commonsense regulations in the name of partisanship. After the messy coda to the health-care vote, when Republicans embarrassed themselves by screaming and offering totalitarian visions of the future, will Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown really line up to prevent major fixes of the financial system?

Woefully, they might. And unlike their Republican counterparts, Democrats are forced to take seriously the ultimate responsibility of their actions: letting the financial sector operate under its current supervision regime is a risk to the country's economic future. And, while it is good politics to fight for the bill -- win or lose -- and draw clear lines between the friends and foes of the banks and their lobbyists, each day that passes brings us closer to the end of this Congress. Each day also brings us closer to the hyper-partisanship of a legislative chamber on the eve of re-election. This Congress may be the last one capable of fixing the financial system for a long while. It understands the urgency of passing financial reform, and it has strong enough majorities to write a clear bill.

The Senate bill's authors effectively skipped what could have been a bruising committee battle to bring the bill directly to the floor, where they still hope to pick up at least one Republican. But their desire to pass bipartisan legislation shouldn't be an excuse for Democrats to avoid forcing tough votes, even if they lose them. If they're not going to face Republicans with guns out, they should vote on a series of amendments to improve the bill in every area, from consumer protection to prudential standards. If Sen. Chris Dodd, the chair of the Banking Committee, is savvy, he'll be able strengthen the bill, score political points, and lay the groundwork for improvements to the legislation -- which will be surely needed -- in years to come.

On financial reform -- to say nothing of the rest of their agenda, Democrats must act together, with discipline and confidence, as they did over the weekend. After watching the Republican reaction to health care's passage, it is time to cast aside any illusions that another path to success exists.

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