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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Skirmish Lost, A Great Battle Won

William Saletan has a perspective-stretcher at Slate.com that might get a more receptive reading as a year-ender, but also makes a point worth considering, post-mid terms. As Saletan writes in “Pelosi’s Triumph: Democrats didn’t lose the battle of 2010. They won it,”

…In the national exit poll, voters were split on health care. Unemployment is at nearly 10 percent. Democrats lost a lot of seats that were never really theirs, and those who voted against the bill lost at a higher rate than did those who voted for it. But if health care did cost the party its majority, so what? The bill was more important than the election.
I realize that sounds crazy. We’ve become so obsessed with who wins or loses in politics that we’ve forgotten what the winning and losing are about. Partisans fixate on punishing their enemies in the next campaign. Reporters, in the name of objectivity, refuse to judge anything but the Election Day score card. Politicians rationalize their self-preservation by imagining themselves as dynasty builders. They think this is the big picture.
They’re wrong. The big picture isn’t about winning or keeping power. It’s about using it.

Saletan quotes former Bush speechwriter David Frum to bring it home:

Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now. … No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage?

Saletan concedes that there will undoubtedly be amendments to the HCR law. He may be understating the case. Boehner and his minions may try to sabotage it, and with some success — but not without a price.
Saletan adds, “Most bills aren’t more important than elections. This one was.” He predicts, optimistically,

A party that loses a House seat can win it back two years later, as Republicans just proved. But a party that loses a legislative fight against a middle-class health care entitlement never restores the old order. Pretty soon, Republicans will be claiming the program as their own. Indeed, one of their favorite arguments against this year’s health care bill was that it would cut funding for Medicare. Now they’re pledging to rescind those cuts. In 30 years, they’ll be accusing Democrats of defunding Obamacare.

As for Speaker Pelosi’s legacy:

…By the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren’t going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it…And that’s not counting financial regulation, economic stimulus, college lending reform, and all the other bills that became law under Pelosi. So spare me the tears and gloating about her so-called failure. If John Boehner is speaker of the House for the next 20 years, he’ll be lucky to match her achievements.

Not to diminish the consequences of the electoral rout Dems have just experienced and the challenges that lie ahead in rebuilding a congressional majority. Those for whom electioneering is the end goal of politics will not find much comfort in Saletan’s take. But under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi, as much, if not more than President Obama, House Democrats have enacted reforms that will save countless lives and make American society better for millions. As time passes the 2010 mid terms will be viewed in context as a political skirmish, but it’s likely that the 2010 HCR law will go down in history as a landmark reform.

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