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Why Democrats Couldn't (Read: Wouldn't) Save the Public Option

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What the past several months have revealed, far more than the power of lobbyists (which we already knew) or the ability of senators to toss their ideology out the window for fun and profit (ditto), is the complete and total inability of the government to govern. Whatever your opinion of this health-care bill, whatever your opinion of Democrats or Republicans, put that aside for a moment and consider this: A charismatic president with a supposedly filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a large majority in the House is completely incapable of enacting massively popular reform.

Now, before you go off and accuse me of health-care reform not being "massively popular," I'll grant you that, in its current form, that's true. In recent poll after recent poll, a plurality of people oppose the current health-care legislation. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about back in the beginning, when health-care legislation included a strong public option. In fact, a solid majority of Americans still support a government-run system that would compete with private insurers. Yet despite popular approval and all the apparatus of government being controlled by the political party that supposedly supports this agenda, it has failed utterly, unless the watered-down Senate bill is made stronger when it is combined with the House bill, sometime in early 2010.

How is that possible? How is it that a president with a mandate the size of Texas and majorities in both houses of Congress that are bigger still cannot get this done? Two reasons, mainly. The first is the filibuster. Sure, the filibuster has been around for years, but not in its current form. According to political scientist Barbara Sinclair, as quoted by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in the 1960s, just 8 percent of major legislation was affected by threatened or actual filibusters. By the 1980s, it stood at 27 percent, and in 2006, when Democrats regained control of Congress from the Republicans, it went up to 70 percent.

The huge jump from the 1980s till now can be blamed in large part on Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, the likely target of Sen. Coburn's plea for God's wrath. In answer to that slight, but still disturbing, upward trend of filibuster use in the late 1980s, then-Senate Majority Leader Byrd instituted an idea called dual tracking. Before that, a filibuster would halt all Senate business. But with dual tracking, the Senate could stop work on the filibustered legislation and get on with other things. Byrd hoped that this would decrease the power of the filibuster. Instead, it has only increased its use.

The second reason is that, quite simply, this is not your grandfather's Democratic Party. This is not the party that grew strong off the labor movement of the 1920s, went leftward and instituted the New Deal. Back then, when discussing his first term's New Deal as he was running for a second, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said,

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

"They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.

"Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred.

"I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master."

Imagine Obama, or any modern Democrat, giving that speech. It's impossible. The truth is that the Democratic Party has been bought and sold a thousand times over since those days. Progressives who demand the re-inclusion of a public option in this legislation are like soldiers preparing to fight Gettysburg. The battle is long over. The "old enemies of peace" already own your party, and they own you.


Send used-up idealism to Dan Sweeney at dfsweeney@citylinkmagazine.com.

(A lengthier version of this column originally ran in this week's issue of City Link magazine and can be read in its entirety here.)

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