03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats Now "All In" On Healthcare Reform

President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are now, to use a poker term, "all in" on healthcare reform. Some may immediately respond to hearing this by saying: "Hey, Chris, you're just on an endless quest for fresh, new metaphors to describe the healthcare reform effort, after writing about it for months." I won't quibble the point. Having pretty much exhausted our sports metaphors for now (at least until the Winter Olympics and all that ultra-hip snowboarding lingo comes barrelling down the hill), we turn to the world of card games for today's installment. Which brings us to the poker hand we've been dealt on healthcare reform. But rather than focusing on the cards themselves, let's instead take a look at the betting action. Because Democrats have now officially gone from "pot committed" to "all in." The stakes, to be blunt, have been raised until they are as high as they can go. And losing this particular hand could have some major consequences for the party as a whole.

For those of you not conversant in the language of gambling, allow me to explain. When you have a good poker hand you start raising the betting until, at some point, you are said to be "pot committed." This means you've invested such a major portion of your available chips in that hand's kitty (or "pot") that folding is no longer an option for you -- because it would leave you too weak to effectively continue playing. But if another player is equally as confident about their hand, a bidding war will ensue. And, at some point, you just decide the heck with it and push all your chips into the pot. You know that if you lose this hand, you'll effectively be sidelined in the game anyway, so you might as well win as much as you can in the current pot... if the cards turn up in your favor. That's a big "if," though -- because if you lose, you're out of the game. It's a bold and risky move, but one that can pay off in a big way.

The "chips" in this metaphor can be equated to that favorite inside-the-Beltway term: "political capital." The Democrats came into office with lots of it, riding a wave of change. And while they scored some early wins at the table, they've been battered around for months now, and their political capital has ebbed lower as a result. After the spring congressional season of passing some good laws faded into the public's distant memory, the Democrats have essentially been playing a single hand ever since -- healthcare reform. It's a big hand, and a big gamble. If Democrats do score a win on healthcare reform, it could pay off enormous dividends for them politically. They could trumpet that they were only the third Congress and president in 70 years to move America forward in such a sweeping fashion.

But now, with the entry of the bill to the floor of the Senate, Democrats are effectively "all in" on this particular hand. The implications are pretty close to binary: if they get healthcare reform passed, they've got a chance in the upcoming 2010 midterm elections; if the entire exercise falls apart at the last minute, then the Democratic Party will enter the midterm season politically bankrupt, and will pay a heavy price at the polls.

Former Vermont governor and former presidential candidate Dr. Howard Dean seems to somewhat agree with this read of the cards, in a Huffington Post article today:

"I think if you passed the Senate bill tomorrow it would be OK. But then the problem is [Democrats] don't have any defense for their members in 2010," Dean said, noting that the public option would not become operational until 2014. "On the other hand, if they drop the public option, I think they lose seats."

"So this is really tough. I didn't anticipate being in this position. I thought it would pass. Maybe Harry [Reid] has some magic up his sleeve. But I don't see how he gets those four votes [Senators Joe Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, and Ben Nelson] without compromising the bill," Dean concluded.

The former Vermont governor warned that if the party allowed the four moderates to further water down the bill (or defeat it altogether) it could lead to primary challenges or a drop in fundraising from the party's base.

"If you have members refusing to vote for Reid on procedural issues you will have a revolt in the party," Dean said. "What is the point of having a 60-vote margin? This is going to be death for the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee]. Why would anyone donate to them if they're supporting candidates who defeat the Democratic agenda?"

Democrats could go, in two short years, from winning once-in-a-generation majorities in both houses of Congress to something very like the 1994 fiasco which swept them from power. Now, many on the Left discount such dire warnings, thinking complacently: "Democrats are moving slow, true, but there's just no way the public will vote the Republicans back in power, since they're the ones who got us into all these messes." Such thinking ignores two very important constants in American politics: the public has a very short attention span, and likewise a very short memory; and secondly, the public has very little tolerance for politicians not being able to get anything done. If the Democrats have crushing losses next year, we pundits will waste a lot of ink and electrons debating whether it was an anti-Democratic, pro-Republican, or just anti-incumbent "wave" among the populace, but none of it will change the outcome one whit after the fact. Given the duality of our two-party system, if people are annoyed with Democrats for whatever reason, then Republicans are the ones who will benefit. That's the way the game's played in America.

To be fair, other factors will be in play next year as well. The economy getting better, or worse, will be either a headwind or tailwind for Democrats on the campaign trail. There will be other battles in Congress which will briefly catch the attention of the media and the public, and there will be some divisive issues served up by the Hot Button Issue Squad over in Republican headquarters. Soldiers may be coming home in droves from Iraq, only to be sent out in droves to Afghanistan (that one will be an interesting balancing act, no matter how it plays out). President Obama's jobs summit may produce some very popular legislation early next year, which could indeed raise people's esteem for Congress at a crucial moment, especially if the unemployment rate gets better later in the year.

But all of those may be minor influences at most. The major deciding factor is going to be whether Congress can pass healthcare reform or not, and whether some immediate benefits are seen by the general public (like an immediate ban on insurance companies denying people with pre-existing conditions, for instance) -- since the major parts of any bill won't take effect until after the 2012 presidential election. But if some of the benefits are front-loaded so people notice the change in their own lives immediately, it could counteract this to a big extent.

President Obama himself is also "all in" on healthcare reform. His approval ratings are falling below the 50 percent line for the first time -- which is dangerous territory for any politician's numbers to be in. He needs a big win. After passing some easy, "low-hanging fruit" legislation early in his first year in office, Congress has mostly been consumed by one issue ever since -- healthcare reform. Whether deserved or not, the perception the public has right now is that Congress has spent the last six months or so on one issue -- while everything else was pushed aside (the media certainly played a part in this perception, but that's water under the bridge right now).

This is when Democrats got "pot committed" on this particular hand -- where, after months and months of town hall protests and obstructionist tactics, bills actually moved out of all the committees and were consolidated into single pieces of legislation in each house. Expectations grew. Now, with the bill moving to the Senate floor after the House approved their bill, the end is actually in sight. Major obstacles remain -- any one of which could stop the entire process -- but the sheer number of such obstacles is dwindling. The nearer we get to actual passage, the more intense the pressure on Congress will be. Ironically, if the bill had fallen apart in August and Democrats had just given up the effort for this year, they may have been stronger politically next year as a result (due to lower expectations at the time). Even early failure would likely have been better politically than ultimate failure, after getting mere inches from the finish line. Democrats have upped the ante by their successes so far in advancing the bill -- farther than any other such bill has ever gotten. When people started looking at healthcare reform as being a definite possibility (rather than just a perennial issue to talk about endlessly, while never going anywhere), expectations for actual passage started growing. And getting let down after a big buildup is always worse than just not expecting much to begin with.

These expectations are now so high that to fail would destroy the political capital of both Democrats and President Obama for the foreseeable future. If Obama does not have this big victory to talk about during his upcoming State Of The Union address, then his first year in office will be marked as a (legislative, at least) failure. He could eventually recover from such a blow, but it would be a tough road to travel for him. "Change we can believe in" has pretty much come down to "get healthcare reform passed" -- whether that's fair or not -- and Obama will be graded on whether he signs a bill or not. Now, no matter what happens on healthcare reform, Obama still has three more years of his first term to go, and many things can happen in three years (good and/or bad). Without healthcare reform, Obama could still have a successful presidency and get re-elected... but it will be a lot harder for him to climb that hill. Even with healthcare reform, Obama could yet be an unsuccessful president on many other fronts, and may wind up losing in 2012 anyway. Three years is a long time in politics, and there are no guarantees.

But most Democrats in Congress are indeed going to have to face the voters next year. They don't (with the exception of some of the senators) have the luxury of this three-year window. And the conventional wisdom in Washington is that not much of anything gets done in Congress in an election year -- or at least not much of anything controversial or bold. Congressional Democrats' fortunes are going to be closely wrapped up with the president's. Democrats were given huge majorities in both houses by the voters in 2008, and they were put there for a reason -- to enable President Obama to pass his agenda, and change this country for the better. Going back to the voters empty-handed is just not going to work. The voters -- quite rightly -- will say: "How big a majority do you guys need before you actually get something done?!?"

Electing Democrats just to have more Democrats in Washington is not going to work this time around. Because there's really no point to it, if they can't manage to act like a majority party and score some legislative victories once they get there. Just having lots of folks in office with a "D" next to their name is not sufficient any more.

Which is why Democrats are no longer just "pot committed" in this poker game. They are truly "all in" on healthcare reform. If they win and manage to get a bill signed, they can proudly campaign on this success. But if they lose this hand -- are forced to "fold," in one way or another -- then they will simply have no chips left to play with, and next November they will likely be ejected from the table by the voters.

Passing healthcare reform has always been a risky gamble. But the stakes are now so high that the chips are down not just for the betterment of the American people, but also for the job security of Democrats in Congress. And they'd better realize it soon (and start acting like it), or the party is going to be in a very rough spot next year -- bereft of political capital, and begging the voters to give them another chance. By going all in, they have put the future of the Democratic Party into the kitty as well. It could pay off big, and then again it could lead to political bankruptcy. That is what is now riding on this hand.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

NEW! Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant