The U.S. Senate clock neared 1 a. m. when the roll call ended on December 18. The vote was 63-33 to end debate on a large military appropriations bill. The vote was historic, if little noted, a triumph of common sense and a rebuke to Republican solidarity. Three Republicans voted for cloture: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, both moderates, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's running for governor of Texas. Many Texans consider supporting U.S. troops more important than stalling health care.
In that midnight hour, Republicans had come to this desperate, stalling state.
What if Democrats lined up to filibuster a bill supporting U.S. servicemen and servicewomen, to delay their medical care, their modest pay raise? The cry of "treason" would fill talk radio as tumbrils rattled out of Fox News studios. In the vacuum created by "post-partisan" passivity, such a spectacle no longer can dismay, disgust or even startle jaded Washington.
After the vote, a remarkable colloquy began. Led by John McCain, a few Republican senators talked about polls, more polls and polls again. The American people don't like this health care bill, they said, as they denounced it some more. After a year of "socialism" charges and "death panel" distortions, poll respondents buy into the big lie and polls become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Surveying the rubble, McCain and his indignant colleagues resemble the bull who wrecked the china shop and later complained about the merchant's messiness.
For 10 years, I was an editorial page editor and had two non-no-negotiable rules: "reform" always comes with quotation marks and citing public opinion polls is forbidden. Why? Stick to policy, not politics. If polls are inaccurate, they're a bum source. If accurate, they tell people what they already know. If polls are accurate or important, then the low rating of Congress should result in 60 percent of incumbents defeated every two years. It doesn't because people hate Congress but love their own member of Congress.
In 1775, when Samuel Johnson said "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," he had not heard of public opinion polls. Polls are now that last refuge, an anxious place where the clock is ticking more loudly. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, has had a hard time finding new ways to say "no." As the year ends, he is troubled by an apparition scarier than the spirits that visited Ebenezer Scrooge. McConnell faces the Ghost of the Previous Question and so complains about voting on weekends, during late hours and late days of the year.
He could have voted earlier. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed Medicare in January. He signed the bill on July 30 at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. in the presence of Harry Truman, who had proposed widening health care coverage 20 years earlier.
Barack Obama is not a president like LBJ, nor is Harry Reid a majority leader like Mike Mansfield. Reid's record in passing legislation is not as impressive as that of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, which enjoys the democratic luxury of majority rule, a notion shunned by the Senate. The senator from Nevada may suffer in comparison to predecessors like Mansfield, Howard Baker, George Mitchell and Bob Dole. but Reid has his own resources. Like a true Nevadan, he knows how and when to call a bluff.