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The Courage of His Convictions

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Saturday, March 06, 2010

When you ask people why it is that they hate or distrust politicians, the usual answers, understandably so, are all about what gutless wonders most politicians are -- addicted to their polls, determined to stay there at all costs. Campaign promises are about getting elected; once there, they are quickly forgotten. Courage is not a word you hear very often in discussions about politics.

Not Barack Obama.

Whether or not you support or even understand his health care plan -- and the polls suggest that right now most Americans don't -- you must admit this: Obama is a man who does everything humanly possible to keep his promises. He promised health care reform, and he is risking his presidency to deliver it. If that's not courage, what is? To be sure, Obama is not on the ballot for a few years. Bill Clinton proved that a president can survive and even triumph after a humiliating midterm defeat.

But that hardly makes it a game plan that makes political sense.

When most of the country turns against you, most politicians will turn with them. Ours is a representative and not a direct democracy, which means we send our representatives to Washington not to do what we want them to do (at least not necessarily), but to do what they believe is right. Most of the time, for most politicians, those things are one and the same. The reason they won in the first place is because they are "in tune" with their districts, and they stay there by staying "in tune."

The problem with the health care debate is that the chorus has changed so dramatically in the past year. Whereas a year ago most Americans said they favored comprehensive health care reform, now they don't. Heads … no, tails. Obama … no, Scott Brown. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

Insiders can debate until the cows come home about the reason for the shift in public opinion. Was it a failure of communication -- too much emphasis on the minority who are not insured, as opposed to the majority who are? Was it a failure of politics -- choosing to fight the last war (Congress was left out on HillaryCare) and, as a result, losing this one by leaving it to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi instead of taking the initiative in the White House? Was it the big bailouts and stimulus bills that left many of us suffering from spending fatigue?

It doesn't matter. Whatever the reason, this much is clear: The weather has changed. Storm clouds have gathered. Voting for health care is much riskier politically than it was when both houses of Congress passed their bill. And while individual members of Congress will face the voters first, there is no question that a rout come November will leave all fingers pointed at Obama -- which would generate the sort of talk about a one-term presidency that no incumbent in his second year would want to hear, much less invite.

And yet that is what Obama is doing. He is staking his presidency on a health care plan that most Americans don't want. He is asking members of Congress to stay with him not because that is what their constituents want, but because it is the right thing to do.

Obama wants a vote on health care because he believes that it is now or never. However grim things might look, this is the biggest majority Democrats are going to have in the foreseeable future. If not now, when?

You can call it arrogant or foolish or shortsighted. Me, I call it courage.

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