By God, he did it.
After more than a year of wrangling, Democratic in-fighting, Senate foot-dragging, House distrust and nagging doubts, even among his strongest supporters, President Barack Obama (who made history just by becoming the first black president) did something on Tuesday that seven presidents, including two Roosevelts, and arguably the greatest politician in living memory, Bill Clinton, failed to do:
He signed historic health care reform into law. As of Tuesday, every American has the right to decent healthcare.
What a difference a day makes.
Not long ago, I was among those who thought Democrats might have to kill the bill in order to salvage real reform. As a proponent of the public option, I, like other progressives, looked on with disgust as the president seemed to sit on the sidelines while White House politicos and Senate Democrats traded away cherished liberal ideas for a ceasefire by big Pharma.
Ironically, by making those compromises, and forcing the Democratic Congress to own reform, as ugly and protracted as that ownership transaction was, President Obama gave his former colleagues in Congress a personal stake in the outcome. By the time health care reform reached its dramatic conclusion – a 219 to 210 vote in the House of Representatives – the party had no choice but to hold hands and walk the plank together. They owned “Obamacare” as much as Obama did.
There were other contributors to victory.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom the Economist rightly called the most powerful woman in America, emerged as a true liberal champion, in the mold of Lyndon Johnson, Tip O’Neil and Ted Kennedy, and as an example to women of how to wield power. According to insiders, the speaker all but dragged the White House and Congress across the finish line, insisting that they go for comprehensive reform, even when the “smart people” in the political wing wanted to stand down after that disastrous Massachusetts election. President Obama owes her a debt of thanks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, much maligned throughout the process, deserves credit, too. He held fast against mass defections by his caucus members, unbearable pressure from the liberal base, the growing likelihood that he could lose his seat regardless of the outcome, and in the end, a health care emergency of his own in the form of a car accident that injured his wife and daughter.
When, and it will be when, Sen. Reid carries the reconciliation package across the threshold, he will have done much to restore the House’s trust in the Senate, and the Senate’s reputation for competence.
But perhaps the biggest contributors to the president’s historic win were those in the opposition.
Republicans held hands, too, but it wasn’t a plank off of which they walked, it was a cliff. By opposing reform in every aspect and repelling every attempt at outreach by the president, Republicans played a high stakes game that had only two possible outcomes: total defeat for the president, or total defeat for them.
The latter is what they got. Along the way, the “party of no” also became the party of blind rage, with total war being waged by their political leaders, while their media bosses (from Fox News Network to talk radio) whipped their Tea Party base into a frenzy that in the end showed itself to be irrational, racist, homophobic and fundamentally in opposition to everything America – particularly young America – wants to be.
In the coming months, Democrats will own legislation that makes it illegal for insurance companies to reject children or drop their customers when they get sick; allows young people (who happen to vote overwhelming Democratic) to graduate from college insured and stay on their parents’ policy until age 26; which makes prescription drugs more affordable for seniors, and insurance more accessible to small businesses (among other benefits that kick in this year, before the election.)
Republicans, on the other hand, will own attempts to repeal those popular benefits, by conservative attorneys general like Florida’s own Bill McCollum. And they'll own the angry mobs who screamed the N-word, spat on black members of Congress, called Hispanic members “spics” and Jewish members “Shlomo,” and who hurled epithets at openly gay representatives.
All in all, in that scenario, despite the pundit prognostications of electoral disaster in November, I’d much rather be an Obama Democrat today, than a Tea Party Republican.
Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media/political strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign.