There's an old saying in politics that "anyone who likes sausage or respects the law should never watch either being made." If ever there was proof positive of the wisdom behind this maxim, it's the current sad state of affairs as the Democrats struggle to pass what they call "health care reform." And unfortunately for them, the whole world is watching as they mix up some really bad sausage.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Really, it wasn't.
A bright and energetic young president rode a wave of popular sentiment into the White House, promising to reverse the course the nation had taken during the Bush years. In the meantime, voters handed Democrats a solid majority in the House of Representatives and an almost unheard of 60 seats in the Senate—guaranteeing them a filibuster-proof majority to move legislation through that most stodgy of political antiquities.
Nor was there any shortage of issues on which the Democrats could act. After all, they were elected by a populace grown tired of the endless wars, the paranoia and intrusion of the Patriot Act, the runaway military spending, and the closed-door policies of the Bush era. All the Democrats had to do was use their majorities to keep their campaign promises, and fulfill the "change and hope" for which our restless and divided nation longed.
But something happened—or I should say, many things didn't happen. It was as if the Democrats were given the Magic Lamp, rubbed it, out came the genie, and then they couldn't figure out what to wish for as they argued among themselves. Poof! The genie vanished back into the lamp and, rub as they would, the genie never reappeared. Worse yet, while they were rubbing away, their filibuster-proof Senate majority, like the genie, also vanished.
Montanans watched this debacle in perhaps a more intense way than many of our fellow citizens because it was our senior senator, Max Baucus, who chaired the powerful Senate Finance Committee, who took on the task of putting together the Democrats' health care reform effort, and who ultimately is responsible for spending a year courting Republicans in a futile and senseless effort at achieving a "bipartisan solution" to health care. Moreover, while Baucus rubbed the Republicans, whatever momentum for change and progress the Democrats and Obama carried with them from the election simply dissipated, vanishing like mist in the hot sun of August.
Meanwhile, the Tea Party stormed across the nation, disrupting town hall meetings with angry protests and literally cowing Democrats who, after all, had nothing to hold up as progress. Worse yet, despite protests at Baucus' offices statewide, at his cheesy "Camp Baucus" lobbyist shakedown at Big Sky, and a corresponding national effort, Baucus unilaterally declared that sensible, easy-to-explain solutions like single-payer, universal health care for all were "off the table." The decision outraged and enervated his party's progressive base.
In the meantime, Obama, to the amazement of many and in direct contradiction to his campaign pledges of open and transparent government, held closed-door talks with drug companies and traded away price controls and the ability of government to bargain for lower prices in exchange for an amorphous promise that Big Pharma wouldn't increase their prices as much as they had planned. The parallels to Vice President Dick Cheney's infamous closed-door meetings with rapacious energy companies left liberals gasping for air and wondering how things could have gone so wrong so quickly.
Which brings us to this week's on-going Democratic disaster, in which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says that House Democrats will pass the Senate bill but won't have to vote to do so. Why they won't have to vote is simple, at least in Pelosi's mind—because far too many House members won't accept the terrible Senate bill and its industry-friendly provisions and special pork-barrel handouts. So instead of having a recorded vote for a bill they do not support, House members will suffer a torturous, Byzantine process whereby they'll vote on a rule that will "deem" the Senate bill to be passed if two other pieces of legislation intended to "fix" the Senate bill are also passed.
Republicans, meanwhile, are having a field day with the Democrats' dilemma, despite contributing exactly nothing to the effort so far except their steadfast refusal to vote for any of the other party's bills. They are, once again, totally unified in their opposition to all of the bills being offered—and to the way in which the process is being manipulated in an effort to pass the measures. And, of course, the Tea Party is likewise having a party roasting the hapless Democrats over the fire onto which they've thrown themselves.
To make it worse, some organized labor and liberal groups are now threatening Democrats who don't vote for the bill with primary challengers in the coming election. Like the British cavalry's Charge of the Light Brigade, the Democrats ride on, as poet Alfred Tennyson put it, "into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell...cannon to right of them, cannon to left of them, cannon behind them...storm'd at with shot and shell." And as William Russell, a war correspondent who witnessed the Battle of Balaklava, wrote "our Light Brigade was annihilated by their own rashness, and by the brutality of a ferocious enemy."
If the bills were a true reform of our health care system, perhaps it would be worth the risk of perishing for the greater glory. But that is simply not the case. Instead, the Democrats, should they actually manage to pass something, wind up with a sorry quid pro quo measure that trades minimal insurance reform for a guaranteed 30 million new customers for the insurance cartels.
It's sad to see it come to this when it could have been so much better. Although the Democrats are putting themselves through the meat grinder, the unfortunate result is simply some very bad sausage.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.