Five Yards and a Cloud of Dust

Five Yards and a Cloud of Dust

Last week, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) made it clear to any and all that he was going to vote “No” on the health care reform package currently being considered by the House. His argument was simple, and on many levels, entirely correct: the current bill is half a loaf, does not contain any kind of public option and is a big, fat giveaway to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Alarm bells started ringing all over the White House, and Representative Kucinich found himself invited for an Air Force One trip with the president. The plane landed, and Representative Kucinich emerged with an announcement that he would, in fact, be voting “Yes” on the bill. Moreover, he immediately swung into action and began whipping votes to make sure the bill gets passed, a move his colleagues described as “unprecedented.”

Press play to listen to author William Rivers Pitt read his column, ” Five Yards and a Cloud of Dust”:

Press play to listen to author William Rivers Pitt read his column, ” Five Yards and a Cloud of Dust”:

What happened? Did Kucinich cave under pressure? Was there some savage arm-twisting going on during that plane ride? Perhaps. It is more than likely, however, that Mr. Obama sat Kucinich down and explained to him that failure to pass this health care bill would be, politically speaking, the end of the world for his presidency, and for the Democratic Party in general.

“I left with a real sense of compassion for our president and what he’s going through,” said Kucinich. “We have to be compassionate towards those who are called upon to make decisions for this nation. It’s not an easy burden that he has taken up. One of the things that has bothered me has been the attempt to delegitimatize his presidency. That hurts the nation when that happens. He was elected … this is a defining moment for whether or not we’ll have any opportunity to move off square one on the issue of health care. I think it’s important that – we have to be very careful that the potential of President Obama’s presidency not be destroyed by this debate.”

If that sounds more than a little strange to you, you’re not alone. Representative Kucinich wasn’t talking about the relative merits of the current proposal, or about what needs to be done to improve it. The nuts-and-bolts discussion was left aside in favor of a big verbal hug for the president, and this coming from one of Obama’s most vocal Democratic critics in the House.

It would appear, at long last, that Mr. Obama and his administration have finally figured out what so many people have been trying to tell them since they came into office. They are in a war of extermination against an entrenched and ruthless foe. The GOP has no interest in working with the White House on anything. They want to beat the president wherever and whenever they can, not out of any sense of principle or because they disagree on issues of policy, but because they want to get back the power they lost in 2006 and 2008. If it wasn’t health care, it would be something else.

After a year of ramming his head into the brick wall of bipartisanship, Mr. Obama finally seems to understand the nature of the fight he is engaged in, and the nature of the opponents arrayed against him. The fact that it took so long to realize the patently obvious fact that these people don’t care about anything beyond slicing his hamstrings has made his task that much more difficult, and now it is crunch time. This was almost certainly the message Mr. Obama conveyed to Representative Kucinich, and given the alacrity with which Kucinich has moved to support and defend the White House, it must have been one hell of a convincing argument.

Robert Reich, who served as Labor Secretary under President Clinton, knows all too well what happens when the GOP successfully pulls out all the obstructionist stops and upends a major policy initiative by a Democratic president. In fact, he learned those lessons the last time a push for health care reform was undertaken. Reich wrote:

Health care reform is necessary, and House Democrats should vote for it because it’s best for the nation. They should also remember the political lessons of history. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. As the White House and the House Democratic leadership try to line up 216 votes to pass health care reform – and as Republicans, aided by the National Association of Manufacturers and abetted by fierce partisans like Newt Gingrich, try to kill it – I can’t help thinking back to 1994 when the lineup was much the same.

I was serving in the Clinton administration at the time. In the first months of 1993 it looked as if Clinton’s health care proposal would sail through Congress. But the process dragged on and by 1994 it bogged down. We knew health care was imperiled but none of us knew that failure to pass health care would doom much of the rest of Clinton’s agenda and wrest control of Congress out of the hands of the Democrats. In retrospect, it’s clear Republicans did know.

In early September, William Kristol of the Project for the Republican Future spelled out the next stage of the Republican battle plan: “I think we can continue to wrap the Clinton plan around the necks of Democratic candidates.” And that’s exactly what they did. On November 8 voters repudiated President Clinton. They brought Republicans to power at every level of government. Democrats went from a controlling majority of 257 seats in the House of Representatives to a minority of 204, and lost the Senate.

I remember how shocked we were the morning after the votes were counted. I asked one of Clinton’s political advisors what had happened. “It was health care,” he said, simply. (That advisor, by the way, is now in the Obama White House.)

Today’s Republican battle plan is exactly the same as it was sixteen years ago. In fact, it’s been the same since President Obama assumed office. They never were serious about compromise. They were serious only about regaining power. From the start, Republicans have remembered the lesson of 1994. Now, as they prepare to vote, House Dems should remember the lesson as well.

How and why the endgame for this health care legislation will play out has become quite clear at this point. Shamefully enough, this thing has to get passed, not because it is in the best interests of the American people, and not because it is a good bill. It has to get passed to salvage this presidency, to keep Congress from returning to Republican rule, and to show whoever might still be watching that this White House can crack the procedural whip and actually make use of the super-majority they’ve squandered so completely to date.

It is a disgraceful situation, but as Reich points out, victory (such as it is) beats the hell out of the alternative. Kucinich saw it that way, at least.