The Myth of the Moderate Democrat

Don’t assume that the 38 Democrats who voted against Nancy Pelosi’s extremist version of health care reform wouldn’t have supported it if their votes had been needed. The days before the final passage on Saturday were not filled with stirring appeals to get Democrats to back the bill so much as an auction to decide whom to let off the hook.

Knowing that the bill will likely be political suicide for any red state Democratic congressman, particularly if he is a freshman, the House leadership had to negotiate with its members to assure that the 38 defectors were the ones who needed political cover the most. That there would be 38 Democrats who would oppose the bill was preordained. Who they would be was the subject of negotiations right up to the wire.

Any real chance that the bill could have been defeated ended with the approval of the anti-abortion amendment. But there still remained the question of how to keep the marginal Democrats in Congress and the party in power.

The chicanery and deception that led up to the vote underscores the myth of the moderate Democrat. The entire Democratic caucus — with pitifully few exceptions — was committed to passing the health care bill. Had it needed all 258 Democrats to vote yes, the bill would have come awfully close.

But the Democratic margin in the House meant that the leaders did not need 258 Democrats, they only needed 219. So they let the most marginal among them off the hook, allowed them to vote against the bill, preserving their chances at re-election.

The real question facing the voters is whether they will be deceived by this sleight of hand in which moderate Democrats pretend that the bill was passed over their objections. Will the voters buy their claims that it became law despite their best efforts?

Once, the voters might have fallen for this trickery. But not now. The electorate is far too well informed to believe that any Democratic congressman really opposed this bill.

The days of the Democrats who live in red states and who let this bill pass — whether they nominally voted for it or not — are numbered and their political careers are about to come to an end. They could not and would not read the handwriting on the walls of New Jersey and Virginia, and are about to suffer the fate of their ancestors in 1994 who disregarded similar warnings.

In the Senate, where 60 votes are needed, there can be no such shell games. All Democrats must report for duty for this bill to pass. So Sens. Lieberman, Bayh, Lincoln, Ben Nelson, Conrad, Dorgan, Tester, Baucus, Johnson and Hagan have a serious decision to make. They have no place to hide.

And should Harry Reid invoke the reconciliation option, he would face other defections from Democrats who realize that they, too, might one day be in the minority and need the filibuster to maintain their relevance in the future.

For now, all Democrats should compare the results in Virginia and New Jersey in 1993 and in 2009.

In Virginia, in both years, an incumbent Democrat sat in the state house but was not permitted to run again. In both years, the Republican won the governorship by identical 58 percent to 41 percent margins.

In New Jersey, in both years, the incumbent Democratic governor sought another term and lost. In 1993, by 49 percent to 48 percent and in 2009 by 49 percent to 45 percent.

If any Democratic congressman is naive enough to believe that a debacle in 2010 will not follow the forecasts of 2009 as surely as the deluge of 1994 followed the precursor of 1993, he doesn’t deserve to be in Congress. And he won’t be.