The Price of Victory

Obama’s health-care win was a messy perversion of democracy—one that will come back to haunt him, and his party, in the end.

03.21.10 11:03 PM ET

So the Democrats have a health-care win in the House—a win that could prove mighty Pyrrhic. It will cost them dearly in the midterm elections; and come 2012, the remarkable man who seemed a shoo-in for a second term at the time of his first inauguration, will stand every chance of losing to any half-decent candidate the Republicans can muster. And in truth, this remarkable man, who has collapsed in stature since the day of that first, stirring inauguration, will have wrought his own eclipse.

Obama’s campaign promise of change left out the bit about its being change in which those who think they know what’s good for us pass a law that most of us oppose with a passion.

Americans have witnessed, in the last days, an ugly and extraordinary display of how the practice of democracy can so often overwhelm its theory: They saw, first, how those who claim an exalted moral stature for health-care reform made a naked attempt to dodge a basic constitutional requirement for the passing of a bill. The subversion of the Constitution was abandoned when it became clear that the Supreme Court would not put up with a law that had been “deemed” to have passed.

More Daily Beast writers on the health-care vote.What Americans saw next was the legislative souk at its most squalid: cajoling, bribing, threatening, wheedling, all designed to bring on board those Democratic congressmen and -women whose votes were needed to attain (or surpass) the number 216, and whose “principles” were getting in the way of a “yes” vote. Hewing to principle is difficult, because it makes party whips angry, spoils dinner parties, and ends careers and friendships. So Kucinich, Stupak & Co. succumbed. To borrow a phrase from Tony Judt, the historian, writing in the latest New York Review of Books: “We… have abandoned politics to those for whom actual power is far more interesting than its metaphorical implications.”

So we’re now on the verge of a tectonic change in the way American society is regulated—a change vigorously opposed by over 55 percent of all Americans. Barack Obama did, of course, promise “change” in his presidential campaign. He just left out the bit about its being change in which those who think they know what’s good for us pass a law that most of us oppose with a passion—a passion born not merely of political opposition, but of a sense that President Obama has dealt the nation a calamitous hand.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)