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House Health Care Vote Transforms the Political Landscape

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We wake up this morning surrounded by a new political world.

The House vote approving health care reform was without doubt the most significant congressional vote in the last four decades. That's because it completely transformed the American political landscape. It certainly changed America's health care system. But it altered the balance of political power in America as well.

  • Fundamental Reform. The House vote, together with the work the Senate will finish this week, will provide health insurance to 32 million Americans, rein in the power of the private insurance industry and end the terror that if you lose your job and get a serious illness you will no longer be able to get insurance. It will ultimately help stop tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year that are caused by the condition known as "no insurance."
  • It brought us into the company of every other industrial nation by establishing that from this day forward in America - health care is no longer a privilege or a commodity but a right.
  • In the two-century-long battle between progressive and conservative values in our country, last night's victory was momentous. Progressive values now define the fundamental frame of reference for a massive new sector of our economy: health care. After President Bush's victory in 2004, the forces advocating conservative, social Darwinist values tried to take back the territory they had lost in the 1930's by attempting to privatize Social Security. Progressives defeated their efforts - and began to push them back.

Barack Obama's victory in 2008 was like the Normandy invasion - the beginning of a forceful progressive counter-offensive. Today we have secured a whole new massive chunk of real estate.

I do not mean "government control" - far from it. I mean that the terms defining the distribution of health care in America will no longer be exclusively based on the interests of huge private insurance companies. Instead they will be defined by the fundamental understanding that health care is a human right.

As the late Senator Kennedy wrote to President Obama before he died, what was at stake in the health care battle was not "the details of policy, but the character of our country."

The exact structures of the health care reform bill may be modified - and I hope expanded -- to include a robust public option. But the progressive value premise has been established and I do not believe it can be rolled back.

Before the Republicans execute their plan to run this fall on a "repeal the bill" platform, they should take a look at the fate of Alf Landon and the Republicans who, in 1936, ran on the platform of repealing Social Security. They lost big. In fact by the time the Republicans finally retook the White House (16 years later) with Dwight Eisenhower no Republican candidate uttered a word about "repealing" a program that had long sense become massively popular.

This victory has validated President Obama's commitment to making serious change. He came into office promising real, transformative change and he has delivered it. He proved that he - and America - can make big change - address truly fundamental issues.

Many pundits had argued that he bit off more than he could chew. They had said that he should be satisfied with "small change" - shouldn't tackle so many things at once - shouldn't challenge the interests of so many powerful sectors of the American economy. Suddenly his Administration, and the forces that surround it, look a lot smarter than it did two days ago, when the dominant media chatter was about who was to blame for allowing the Obama Presidency to be stuck in the mud. Obama accomplished something that had eluded Presidents for a century - not bad.

With this victory the entire narrative of the Obama presidency has changed. Health care reform has repeatedly been declared moribund - completely dead after the Scott Brown election in Massachusetts. Obama has brought health care back - like a phoenix -- from the dead. He did it through absolute persistence and clear, unflappable leadership - the same kind of leadership he and his organization exhibited when they were repeatedly counted out during the Presidential race.

He also demonstrated nerves of steel. He bet the political ranch on health care reform and won.

  • Last night's vote demonstrated to the American voters that government can work. It has been a central Republican goal for years to show that government doesn't work. Of course the incompetence of the Bush Administration helped validate their premise. But since the election of a Democrat to the White House they have had one key goal: gridlock. The lock has been broken.
  • Our victory demonstrated that a special interest as wealthy as the private insurance industry can in fact be defeated. The insurance companies and Chamber of Commerce have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to stop health care reform cold. They lied, they distorted the facts, they threatened. They have failed. That will embolden Democrats - and average Americans - to challenge the power of Wall Street and the Oil Companies, to challenge the power of every other special interest that seeks to promote their private interest at the expense of the public interest.
  • The House vote shows that hope can defeat fear. The entire campaign of the health insurance industry and the Right has been built on a foundation of fear - from death panels, to "government takeover," to "socialized medicine," to bogus "cuts" in Medicare. Hope won. That has enormous implications for issues like immigration reform.
  • The health care victory was a tribute to political courage - the courage of Barack Obama who bet his Presidency on the outcome - and the courage of many House Democrats who took, what they feared would be an unpopular vote.

In fact, I would argue, that by Election Day, there will be very few districts where a vote for health care reform is unpopular. But I would also argue, that this fall we will see clear evidence that courage itself is very popular.

Willingness to stand up for what you believe - and unwillingness to be swayed by political winds - is good politics. People love candidates who are not what they conceive as "typical politicians" that always have their fingers in the air or decide what they believe based on the latest poll.

The fact that many Members stood up tall - took on the insurance industry - and refused to be intimidated - is itself a great political narrative for Democratic candidates this fall.

And I predict that we will also learn the opposite is also true. The Democrats who decided to oppose health care reform because of political pressure - particularly those that voted yes the first time health care reform was considered by the House - will be in deep political trouble.

The flip-floppers will find that they will gain nothing with the hard core opponents of reform, their base will be demobilized, and the flip-flop charge itself will move independent voters to oppose them. Very dumb.

Last night's victory shows that great organizing works. Credit goes to the millions of members of Organize for America (OFA), MoveOn.org, the major health care reform coalition, Health Care for America Now (HCAN), U.S. Action, the Center for Community Change, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association, the Center for Community Change, Americans United for Change, The Communications Workers of America (CWA), AARP, the Alliance of Retired Americans, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Women's Law Center, Planned Parenthood, the Center for American Progress, Progress Now, Families USA - and scores of other grassroots organizations.

These are real organizations - not the creations of "astro-turf" lobby firms like Dick Armey's "Freedom Works."

Credit especially goes to organized labor - the bedrock of the progressive forces in America - without which victory was not even remotely possible - as well as progressive funders like Atlantic Philanthropies.

The campaign conducted by the pro-reform forces included everything from phone calls, to grassroots action, to earned media, to lobby visits to Congress, to TV commercials. In many respects it was a model - to be built and improved upon in the future. Though we were outgunned financially by the infinitely deep pockets of insurance industry, we won.

And ultimately victory also depended entirely on a tough, eloquent President to provide the leadership necessary to win.

The end game was particularly masterful. One commentator noted that the President had the Republicans for lunch when he spoke at their own retreat - and he had a seven hour banquet at the "bi-partisan" summit. He used the power of the Presidency to enormous effect to place the Republicans on the defense.

The rallies, the self confidence, and the sense of inevitability that he and Speaker Pelosi brought to the last several weeks - coupled with brilliant one-on-one work with Members of Congress and co-ordination with Administration allies sealed the deal.

Perhaps the biggest political winner of last night's victory was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She showed once again that she is the best political organizer in America. She aggregated the self-interests of hundreds of individual members. She navigated the dangerous shoals of dozens of contentious, divisive issues. She hammered together the votes to win largely out of her own force of will. For her, failure was not an option.

Her organizing skill was complemented by the enormous but understated talents of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who convinced his caucus that a reconciliation bill to incorporate the negotiated agreement with the House was the only way to get health care moved. Reid delivered what the House needed - the agreement of 51 Senators to pass the reconciliation bill. Reid will finish his part of the drama this week and - as a by-product - massively improve his own prospects for re-election this fall.

Finally, this victory will invigorate the base of the Democratic Party and greatly improve the chances of victory for all Democrats this fall. Let's remember that Democrats lost control of the House in 1994 because Democrats didn't come out and vote after the failure of health care reform earlier that year. Last night's victory will have precisely the opposite effect.

Not only that, but voters like to support winners. Last night the Democrats in Congress, President Obama and the progressive forces in America won big. The Progressive band wagon has been freed from the mud and is moving once again. It will attract more and more followers as we get closer to the Election Day.

There was another big loser last night -- the "chattering class" of pundits. Turned out that health care, the Obama presidency, and the progressive movement weren't so dead after all.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.

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