POLITICS
05/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Axelrod: Health Care Passed Because GOP Let Down Its Guard After Massachusetts

One of the president's closest advisers said on Tuesday that Republican opponents of health care reform let down their guard following Sen. Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts, in the process allowing Democrats and the administration to make a final, successful push for the bill.

In an interview with the Huffington Post hours after the president signed health care reform into law, senior adviser David Axelrod pointed to that special election in late January as a pivotal point in the long path to passing legislation.

"Some of the steam went out of the opposition after that," Axelrod said. "I think that people felt like they had made a statement. Perhaps they felt like they had killed health care reform... They thought the fight was over. And that [the president] couldn't now succeed. I do believe that. And it is almost as if they had made the statement that they thought they had stopped the thing. And so it created a breathing space for us to regroup."

In the weeks that followed Brown's win, indeed, the conventional wisdom held that the health care reform movement had come to a screeching, unexpected halt. It wasn't just Republicans pushing the theory but some Democratic lawmakers who were also convinced that the time had come to move on.

At the White House, the president was presented with several options. Dropping health care reform entirely was dismissed. Going to a watered-down version of reform was considered but quickly rejected. The idea of regrouping, reselling and pushing again for the bill (this time using reconciliation) was ultimately chosen.

"[Massachusetts] raised issues that we had to confront," Axelrod explained. "What had we done to contribute to some of that unrest? And obviously there was tremendous unhappiness about the Nebraska deal and this gave us a chance to address some of those flaws."

Democratic National Committee chair Tim Kaine, in a separate interview with the Huffington Post, described the moment as a sobering one for the party. But a lot of the hysteria that accompanied Massachusetts, he added, wasn't rooted in reality.

"I was very troubled," he said. "People were really glum. And I was basically telling them, "Hey, wait a minute. We've got 59 Democratic senators and only 51 when President Obama was running, there were only 58 on Inauguration Day. There haven't been 59 since 1979. It was a big loss, we've got to learn some lessons from it, but we can't have that big a margin and walk around with our tails between our legs. We have to figure out a way to govern like we got 59."

Calling the election a "dark moment" in a historically lengthy legislative debate, Axelrod ultimately came to view the Brown win -- which denied the Democratic Party a supermajority of 60 caucusing senators -- as a positive development for the president. The parallel he drew was to the 2008 Democratic New Hampshire primary, when the Obama campaign (along with much of the political world) believed the then-senator would coast to victory, only to be confronted with a harsh and dispiriting dose of reality.

"It's an analogy I used the other day," Axelrod said. "I always believed in the presidential race they just didn't want to shut the race down because they liked Obama, they thought he had potential. But he was new. He was four years out of the State Senate and they weren't prepared to hand him an early knockout. They wanted him to go through the entire battle, and they wanted to judge him based on how he performed on that long hard road.

"And actually, with Massachusetts, I think people wanted to see this debate go on for a while and they wanted to see our suppositions tested and retested. But what Massachusetts did at the end of the day was that it persuaded people on our side of the fight not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. And it really rallied our base behind the president's proposal."

If Brown's election was the legislative equivalent of the New Hampshire Democratic primary, then signing health care into law would logically be cast as the November election. But Axelrod insisted that the signing of health care into law was actually more significant for him than seeing Obama win the White House. It's the difference between promising change and achieving it.

"This was one of the great days," he said. "The spirit in that room was phenomenal. A guy stopped me on the street today and he had tears in his eyes. He said I just want you to know my father died when he was 63. And we were actually relieved. He was very sick. But we were afraid we were going to go bankrupt because he had no health insurance. He said Franklin Roosevelt was my father's hero and I want you to tell the president he is now mine."