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11.20.09

The Runaway Senate

When Democrats can't even agree to debate the health care bill, the president is no longer in charge of his party. Matt Miller on why Obama needs to crack the whip.

The beltway consensus was that Harry Reid’s ability to get wavering Democratic senators to allow the health care debate to proceed has been a “test of the majority leader’s leadership”—a test that Reid looks likely to have passed, what with Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Lousiana having come on board Friday, and Blanche Lincoln looking like an 11th-hour "yes" vote.

But this entire debacle was really a test of whether Barack Obama can throw a punch. And on that, the verdict is still out.

The idea that anyone calling themselves a Democrat could have thought twice about whether the Senate should move ahead on the party’s biggest priority should have been grounds for public presidential reprimand, if not excommunication.

Fresh from the president’s humility tour with our Chinese bankers, it’s a fair question. Everyone knows Obama is intelligent, visionary and articulate. But no one fears him. The shocking “maybe I will, maybe I won’t” behavior of Nelson, Lincoln and Landrieu this week underscores this perception that bucking the president has no consequences.

Apart from economic recovery, health care reform is the biggest domestic initiative of Obama’s presidency. It’s been a defining Democratic Party goal for decades. It’s now closer than ever to being realized. Yes, the emerging bills are imperfect—but Washington will be biting at the health care apple every year for the next decade as the nation wrestles to bring costs under control while boosting coverage and quality. Given this obvious reality, how could the White House have permitted Democratic senators to publicly waver with impunity—and not on the question of whether they’ll actually support the final bill, but on whether they’d even allow the debate to proceed?

The idea that anyone calling themselves a Democrat could have thought twice about whether the Senate should move ahead on the party’s biggest priority should have been grounds for public presidential reprimand, if not excommunication. Instead, Rahm Emanuel and other aides were dispatched to see how many bridges, highways and judgeships for pals these dithering pols required to grease the skids. As one Democratic insider lamented to me this week, this horse trading over the mere ability to have the debate risks making the rest of the Democratic caucus feel like suckers. Maybe they should be holding out for more goodies at every little turn if that’s how Team Obama is willing to play it.

Maybe the president has gotten past this week’s health care squeaker, but there’s still a long way to go. Obama better start punishing unacceptable behavior or he’ll never push his ambitious agenda through the Washington maze. And don’t think the world isn’t watching. If Lincoln, Landrieu and Nelson aren’t worried about crossing the president, why should Vladimir Putin or Hamid Karzai be?

Matt Miller is a management consultant, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and the host of public radio’s popular political week-in-review, Left, Right & Center . His new book is The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.