In the Arena

Mass. Murder

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If Martha Coakley actually manages to lose the Senate race in Massachusetts, there will be all sorts of recriminations–but, I believe, one inescapable conclusion. People will say she was a lousy candidate who went to sleep after the primary, taking the general election for granted. True enough. Some will say that Scott Brown is an attractive guy who ran a smart campaign. Also true.

But the inescapable conclusion is that this campaign–now that it’s become a huge news story nationally (and also in Massachusetts, which should drive a big turnout)–is a referendum on President Obama’s health care reform bill…and the horrifically messy process that produced it. As readers know, I support the bill–it isn’t my ideal, the Ron Wyden plan was–because it achieves two important goals: it makes it impossible for insurers to deny coverage and it subsidizes those too poor to afford health care now. It also points the way to a more orderly and consumer-friendly future through the establishment of health care exchanges where individuals and small businesses will have the same market clout (and lower prices) that major corporations now enjoy.

This is good policy, but it now seems entirely possible that it was bad politics. It might have been better for the President to have paid more attention to the public skepticism about governmental activism and built trust by going after more popular demons–Wall Street, for one; Congressional profligacy, for another.

At the end of his presidency, Bill Clinton told me that he should have enacted welfare reform before trying health care. He needed to establish credibility as a good manager–at that point, most middle class voters considered the welfare system a worthless scam (and it was, as subsequent events showed, in desperate need of reform). Obama probably needed to do something similar…and he will, belatedly, do so this year, pushing for stricter financial regulations and a tax on big banks to recoup the bailouts. He should also revive his campaign pledge of a National Infrastructure Bank, which would take decisions about the most important new public works projects out of the hands of Congressional porkers. If Obama had done so in his first year, his approval ratings might be closer to 60% than to 50% today.

He chose instead to take on health care reform, a project of indisputable long-term value to the country. He has gotten farther than most experts considered possible. He has made embarrassing compromises in the process, but it’s likely he couldn’t have gotten to this point any other way. He has spent most of his political capital. And, if the Democrats lose the election in Massachusetts, Obama loses his veto-proof majority in the Senate…and if he does, his gamble will, most likely, have failed. This will say profound things about government’s ability to take on big projects in an atmosphere overwhelmed by special interests, Republican nihilism, media sensationalism and public apathy.

Massachusetts will be spun any number of creative ways, no matter how it turns out. But health care is, in the end, what this is all about.