Friday quartet

On various fronts:

It's hard to overstate the importance of the impending House floor vote on health care reform, now scheduled for Saturday night. The moment of truth is finally at hand. For the ruling Democrats, this is akin to a standing at home plate in the late innings of a crucial World Series game; either they put the barrel of the bat on the ball, or they might as well hit the showers. If they somehow suffer more than 40 rank-and-file defections and the reform bill goes down (seemingly unlikely), the whole timetable for bringing a final measure to President Obama by the close of '09 will be upended. And then we're into an election year; fence-sitting politicians are congenitally averse to taking any legislative risks in an election year. So it's probably now or never for the Democratic leaders to figure out how to tweak the reform package in ways that will make it liberal enough for their liberal lawmakers and conservative enough for their Blue Dog and moderate lawmakers. Such is the prime challenge of a big-tent party. No doubt the Republicans would prefer to be running things, rather than naysaying from the sidelines; on other hand, because they are more ideologically homogeneous, they don't have the headaches that come with trying to herd various breeds of cats.


Speaking of the House Republicans, they unveiled their own health care reform proposal the other day. Finally. It's a meaningless gesture, given the fact that they held power for eight years while one of their own party brethren sat in the White House, yet never showed the slightest interest in the issue. And sure enough, the new GOP proposal is a veritable blueprint for the status quo. The Congressional Budget Office has already checked it out: "By 2019, (we) estimate, the number of non-elderly people without health insurance would be reduced by about 3 million relative to current law, leaving about 52 million non-elderly residents uninsured." The GOP proposal wouldn't even prohibit the insurance companies from denying coverage to Americans with pre-existing health conditions. No wonder Americans continue to trust the Democrats far more than the Republicans on health care, even with all the public skepticism about the Obama agenda. Nor did the House Republicans help themselves yesterday, when they pandered to a crowd (bused to the Capitol by a corporate front group) that was heavily populated by the usual suspects yelling about Obama's Nazi/communist/Kenyan heritage. It was pathetic to watch Republican leader John Boehner bond with the loons by declaring that health care reform is "the greatest threat to freedom that I have seen in the 19 years I've been in Washington." Well, gee. Until Boehner enlightened me, I had assumed that, in all those years, the crashing of a planeful of innocent Americans into the Pentagon had been the greatest assault on freedom. I stand corrected.


Speaking of the people who are really running the GOP these days, consider Club for Growth, the well-heeled organization of economic conservatives that has made it a mission to purge the party of all ideological diversity. Fresh from its debacle this past week in upstate New York - where the group drove a moderate Republican out of an easily winnable congressional race by pumping a million bucks into the candidacy of a conservative who wound up losing - Club for Growth is now doubling down by targeting Charlie Crist, the electable Republican senatorial candidate in Florida. Crist is the (relatively) moderate Florida governor who made the inexcusable mistake of welcoming federal stimulus money (as well as Obama personally) last winter; today, fearful of the right's wrath, he's trying to play down that behavior - and Club for Growth is running Florida TV ads to ensure that '10 Republican primary voters won't forget. Club's efforts will boost Crist's conservative challenger, ex-Florida House speaker Marco Rubio, and further ratchet up internal GOP tensions between the grassroots right and the more pragmatic party establishment. The same thing seems likely to happen next year in contested Republican primaries, for both House and Senate seats, in California, Illinois, North Carolina, Kentucky, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. Is this healthy for the party? Nor according to the reliably Republican Wall Street Journal editorial page: "A majority political party requires a far more diverse coalition than the audience of your average right-wing blogger or talk show host....If conservatives now revolt against every GOP candidate who disagrees with them (on key issues), nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will keep their majorities for a very long time." Tell that to Rush and Sarah and Glenn and Club.


Regarding Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial contest, it's too simplistic to say that Virginians, having supported Obama a year ago, have now repudiated Obama by picking a Republican governor. Such was the flawed theme of many news reports. Based on my look at the exit polls, it is far more accurate to say that a different Virginia electorate - far more conservative than the state's '08 electorate - showed up on Tuesday. When asked who they supported in the '08 presidential election, 51 percent of this week's Virginia voters named John McCain, and only 43 percent named Obama. That's a virtual reversal of the '08 statewide electorate's verdict: 53 percent Obama, 46 percent McCain. A comparison of the two electorates makes it clear that conservatives were motivated to show up and vote, while the '08 Obama voters simply stayed home. Some were probably ill-inspired by the uninspiring Democrat for governor, Creigh Deeds. But my educated guess is that far more were simply dispirited by the general state of things, particularly the economy. And economic anxiety played a big role in Jon Corzine's New Jersey gubernatorial defeat as well; according to the Jersey exit polls, 56 percent of the voters were "very worried" about how the economy will perform in the year ahead, and those worriers broke for Republican Chris Christie, 61-34. As I said here a few weeks ago, incumbent parties tend to get blamed in bad economic times, and today's new jobless figures - topping 10 percent nationwide - won't help the Democrats either. Obama economic adviser Christina Romer admitted this morning: "Having the unemployment rate reach double-digits is a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done before American families see the job gains and reduced unemployment that they need and deserve." If the Democrats want to minimize their losses in the '10 congressional elections, they need to post perceivable job gains by next spring. They have a very narrow time window.   

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