On the eve of the historic health care vote, President Obama spoke to House Democrats. He began his speech by quoting Abraham Lincoln: "I am not bound to win, but I'm bound to be true. I'm not bound to succeed, but I'm bound to live up to what light I have."
Listening to the final floor speeches that followed put into stark relief the key difference between the two parties. The Democrats, as they had been throughout the yearlong process, were fractious -- often frustratingly so -- but engaged in the debate about how to best deliver health care reform to the American people. The Republicans, on the other hand, were so united in their lockstep refusal to be a serious part of the process that it's hard to even call them the opposition.
Indeed, watching the contrast between the two sides, including the Democrats' last-minute horse-trading over abortion, brought to mind another Lincoln quote, from when he was just a former Illinois congressman. It came in response to Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed residents of the two new territories to vote on whether slavery would be allowed. Douglas had chided his opponents for not being united.
"[Douglas] should remember that he took us by surprise -- astounded us by this measure," responded Lincoln. "We were thunderstruck and stunned, and we reeled and fell in utter confusion. But we rose, each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach -- a scythe, a pitchfork, a chopping-ax, or a butcher's cleaver. We struck in the direction of the sound, and we were rapidly closing in upon him. He must not think to divert us from our purpose by showing us that our drill, our dress, and our weapons are not entirely perfect and uniform. When the storm shall be past he shall find us still Americans, no less devoted to the continued union and prosperity of the country than heretofore."
In other words, rallying a fractious party of equality against a united party of oppression was difficult, but, in the end, good for the country.
Today's GOP, in its unbending commitment to upholding a broken status quo, differs from the Southern Party of Lincoln's day in name only.
There is no doubt that there are far too many in the Democratic Party also dedicated to maintaining the status quo -- one that benefits the few to the detriment of the many. They don't really want change either. But enough did to make history.
Yes, the final bill is deeply flawed. Yes, the process that led to it was woefully mishandled -- right up until the very end when, as Ryan Grim points out, the votes were there for a public option that, nonetheless, wasn't included. And yes, the Democrats once again revealed their many flaws -- including just how many of them remain susceptible to the health care industry lobbyists who descended on Washington.
But there is no denying that the lives of millions of Americans will be improved because of what the Democrats have done.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been hoisted with their own deeply cynical petard. As David Frum outlines it in his must-read post-mortem, Republicans decided that there would be "no negotiations, no compromise, nothing" in the hope of turning health care into Obama's Waterloo. In the process, they turned their back on many "traditional Republican ideas" on health care and "followed the most radical voices in the party." "We went for all the marbles," laments Frum. "We ended with none."
The GOP's toxic smokescreen of fear-mongering ("This is going to cause Armageddon") and untruths (they want "to pull the plug on grandma") has been blown away, revealing a party that stands unified against progress.
John Boehner declared last week that if health care passed, "it'll be over my dead body." Since he seemed very much alive today -- orange tan and all -- let's hope his party's obstructionism fills his slot on the cold slab of the political morgue.
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are empowered and energized. In the best tradition of great presidents who have learned on the job, President Obama has shown a willingness to course correct and an ability to do so. In the wake of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts (a victory that led Fred Barnes to declare health care reform "dead with not the slightest prospect of resurrection"), Obama finally moved off the sidelines and took charge of moving health care forward. He finally gave up his obsession with bipartisanship, finally took on the health insurance industry, and finally adopted the populist rhetoric the times call for.
As a result, he created the kind of momentum that builds upon itself -- the kind that delivers the votes you never have until, well, you have them. The kind of momentum that says, this train is leaving the station, you better get on board or get left behind. The kind of momentum he and his fellow Democrats can use as they tackle the huge problems ahead.
As the president put it in his speech following the health care vote: "The work of revitalizing our economy goes on. The work of promoting private sector job creation goes on. The work of putting American families' dreams back within reach goes on."
So, as he pivots to addressing these other major issues, let's hope the president and his party don't wait until their backs are up against the wall -- and have given too much of the farm away to a party unwaveringly committed to maintaining the broken status quo -- before doing the things they should have been doing all along.