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Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About November

05/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The conventional wisdom is that the year-long debate on health care reform will severely hurt the Democrats in the November mid-term elections. Most people concede that passage of the legislation on Sunday night may help a bit, but they still believe that the Democrats will lose a significant number of seats in the House and at least several seats in the Senate.

I disagree. I may be whistling in the dark, but I believe the passage of the legislation on Sunday night will provide the Democrats with an opportunity to actually strengthen their majorities in both Houses. And I believe the Republicans fear exactly that.

The tip-off for me was the debate on the House Floor on Sunday. I didn't watch all of it (after all, I do have a life), but during the portions that I did watch, the Republicans talked primarily about process. The only substantive issue they raised was abortion, and even that was in the context of process -- whether anti-abortionists could rely on an Executive Order. Other than that, it was about "deeming," and "ignoring the will of the people," and wanting a roll call vote instead of a recorded vote, and the unreliability of the Senate to act on the Reconciliation package, and on and on ad nauseum. They didn't dare talk about the actual substance.

The Democrats, on the other hand, talked about insuring 32 million currently uninsured people, covering pre-existing conditions, allowing children to stay on their parents' policy until the age of 26, eliminating lifetime caps on benefits, plugging the donut hole in the prescription drug law, etc. The difference was striking.

Equally striking was the measured tone of the Democratic speakers contrasted with the angry tone of the Republican speakers. The Republicans knew they were going down to defeat, and they hated it. They sounded bitter, and they acted childishly, calling Bart Stupak a "baby-killer" and holding up signs to stoke the anger of protestors.

Of course, few people probably watched the debate. After all, it's hard to compete with March Madness (although the Republican behavior might qualify in its own way as March Madness). However, it is the kind of contrast in tone we're likely to see in the mid-term election campaigns. And I believe a majority of the public, particularly independents, will recoil at the behavior of many Republicans, especially when the tea party crowds start holding up obnoxious signs and shouting racial epithets and slurs against gay and lesbian people.

Obviously, Boehner, Cantor, Camp and company were playing to their base, and it's the enthusiasm of the base that determines turn-out and victory in mid-term elections. But passage of this historic legislation, combined with the Republican behavior, will ratchet up the enthusiasm of the Democratic base. There already is evidence in a recent poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies that African American voters are motivated to turn out in higher-than-usual numbers in November, and this legislative victory will increase such a likelihood. Furthermore, as the Obama Administration starts tackling immigration reform, the interest of Latino voters in the November elections will grow. And don't be surprised if the Republican behavior brings out the normally stay-at-home independents -- to vote for the Democrats.

In addition, the effectiveness and commitment demonstrated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as President Obama, will make it difficult to charge that this has been a do-nothing Congress or that Washington is ungovernable. Interestingly, I believe it will be harder for Republicans to demonize Speaker Pelosi as a far left ideologue, because she clearly stood up for the middle-class as well as the poor during this long, drawn-out process, and she was not panicked by the Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts. It simply stiffened her resolve. And Americans like a stiff spine.

As President Obama mounts the bully pulpit to tout the benefits in the legislation and as people begin to feel these benefits, the process by which we got here, admittedly ugly, will fade in importance. Who remembers the process by which we achieved civil rights legislation, Medicare, and the prescription drug benefits? People remember what the legislation has accomplished, not how it was achieved.

Finally, this victory has strengthened both President Obama and Speaker Pelosi (the jury is out on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid), and this may make it easier to pass legislation on other key issues -- financial regulation, job creation, debt reduction, climate change. There may not be much bi-partisanship, but it's success that counts, and such successes will further strengthen the argument that Democrats can, in fact, govern.

If Democratic candidates follow the line of argument they were making on Sunday, if President Obama uses the bully pulpit to make people aware of the benefits of this legislation while branding the Republicans as the angry "party of no," and if Sunday's victory stiffens the spines of some Democrats on other vital issues, don't be surprised if the November elections yield a stunning result, a filibuster-proof Senate once again and a House no less Democratic than it is now.