So confident was Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her party's leviathan health care reform measure that she had the House debate and vote on it in the dark of night on Saturday. Doing so may end up dooming her party in next November's midterm elections...and beyond.
Voters and taxpayers don't like sneak-attacks. They sure don't like their representatives spiriting major legislation through on a weeknight, not to mention legislation that promises a colossal change to how health care is delivered and that is full of hidden (and not-so-hidden) taxes and fees and mandates.
While most Americans watched movies or or slumbered, the Speaker mounted her Pearl-Harbor-like attack. She dropped her bombs when Americans were disengaged because she knew the sprawling, convoluted, and incomprehensible legislation stood a much better chance of passing then.
The plan was simple. News generates interest. Interest leads to action. The last thing the Speaker wanted was wavering Democrats to be broadsided with calls and e-mails from irate constituents. With no Rush or Hannity or Levin on the airwaves, with conservative bloggers away from their keyboards, Ms. Pelosi, the House Democratic leadership, and President Obama worked the floor or the phones, promising wobbly-legged members more pork and the chance to "make history."
The strategy worked well enough. Still, Ms. Pelosi won with only two votes over a bare majority (220-215). Only one Republican, Joseph Cao, crossed the aisle. Cao, who is the first Republican to represent New Orleans since 1890, likely defected as a sort of "Hail Mary" pass. Cao is one of the most endangered Republicans in Congress, and is an odds-maker's bet to lose reelection.
Otherwise, thirty-nine Democrats joined one hundred and seventy-six Republicans in voting against the measure. Some of those Democrats refused to go along because they saw no point in committing political hara-kari. Other Democrats -- perhaps most -- were assuredly given Pelosi's blessings to "take a walk," on the sensible belief that there was no point exposing more of her troops to enemy fire than necessary. Holding red-state districts will be tough enough in 2010, anyway.
Make no mistake, though: the late-night vote is a sign -- not of Democrats' strength, but of their great weakness. Leaders see the daily polling: a majority of Americans are against a government hijacking of health care. They know they're surely going to take some flak in next November's elections.
What the President, Pelosi, and Harry Reid are gambling on is that once government health care becomes law, the public will switch from opposing it outright to pouring its energies into fine-tuning it. Statist health care will become a fact of life, like Social Security, Medicare, and public education. Those entities are seen by most Americans as permanent, and the only hope is to find ways of improving their performances. That means endless spending increases, higher and higher taxes, ever more amendments, newer and more complicated regulations, and mandates. Democrats reason that once government health care embeds itself in the system, it's there forever.
And it may be so, which is all the more reason that conservatives and independent-minded Americans need to redouble their efforts to kill the measure in the Senate. The Senate operates under different rules. There's much more deference to individual members. The Senate is often the elephant's graveyard of legislation. Opponents of government health care need to try to make it so for this bill too.
The wretched Harry Reid, the Democrats' majority leader, is in a world of hurt right now. He's up for re-election in 2010 and thus far is trailing likely Republican opponents in trial heats. Currently, he's one unpopular guy in sunny Nevada.
But the Majority Leader is in far too deep to take his own walk on health care legislation. He has to push for passage and hope, as stated, that voter hostility siphons off into fix-it efforts.
There's been plenty of speculation about whether or not Reid will resort to the "nuclear option" to get government health care through his chamber. The nuclear option means using the reconciliation mechanism to end debate and pass legislation by a simple majority. Reconciliationwas the brainchild of Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), who wanted a way to deal with budget issues more expeditiously. By Senator Byrd's own testimony, reconciliation was never intended for use in considering and passing landmark legislation.
But with his back to the wall, Reid, can't worry about fine distinctions. Reconciliation may well be his last best chance to deliver the goods.
Democrats find themselves in quite a pickle. Failure to pass health care reform -- their marquee measure -- brands them as incompetents and brings the wrath of hell down from the left. Passage is their best chance for salvation, though it won't come without a short-term price at the ballot box.
Then again, pulling a stunt like a reconciliation vote on health care in the Senate, coupled with Pelosi's sneak attack on Saturday night, might make Democrats completely repulsive to voters. Democracy is about participation, consultation, and deliberation...not exclusion, heedlessness, and haste.
Violating the fundamental tenets of democracy may generate a backlash that smug Democrats can't even begin to imagine. After all, the Japanese fancied their surprise-attack on Pearl Harbor as quite a blow to the United States -- that is, until the United States counterattacked at Midway and turned the tide in the Pacific.
Is there a Midway in the Democrats' future? We'll learn soon enough.