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The Last Lap

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It was 30 years ago that we first put national health insurance in the Democratic Party platform. I was working for Ted Kennedy then. We had lost the nomination to Jimmy Carter, but both sides were still fighting. Whatever we were for, President Carter and his team were against. And we were very much for health care.

We took it to the floor of the Democratic convention in New York, knowing that the Carter campaign would never be able to hold on to their union delegates in a roll call vote. They couldn't. We won handily, even though Carter controlled two-thirds of the delegates.

If anyone had told me then that we'd still be having the same debate 30 years later, and that it would turn (once again) not on convincing Republicans but Democrats, I would have asked them what they were smoking.

And yet here we are, maybe, possibly, finally nearing an end to that debate.

Can the president of the United States get the handful of votes he seems to still need to pass his health care bill? Don't bet against it. Minority Leader John Boehner may be ready to declare victory -- as he did on the Sunday talk-show circuit this weekend -- but 30 years tells me, not so fast.

Most members of Congress want more than anything to keep being members of Congress, which is why they spend so much time raising money. Boehner, with his predictions of a Republican conquest if the Democrats enact health care reform, is giving "Blue Dog" Democrats their Miranda warnings: This vote can and will be used against you by your Republican opponent. No doubt.

But at least two powerful forces weigh on the other side. The first is ambition. Almost every member of Congress sees a president when they look in the mirror to shave (or put on makeup) in the morning. For Democrats in marginal districts, the risks of voting with the president are obvious. But so are the risks of switching sides and letting him, and the party, down.

Your Republican opponent will still attack you -- for being a gutless wonder, which, if you ask me, is even worse than being wrong. And loyal (to the president) Democrats will never forgive you -- including fellow members, rich donors, supportive unions and partisans everywhere. Even if it allows you to keep your seat, that's all you'll ever be. And if you lose, forget a future in politics. No job in the administration. No comeback kid. The rule in politics is: Don't get mad. Get even.

The second is the power of the presidency. That includes the power to locate projects in your district, guarantee that you have goodies for your constituents and make sure grants go to local hospitals, schools or subways.

"Is this an election or an auction?" the late Anne Wexler, then an aide to Carter, famously asked in 1980. Her comment was in response to the phenomenon that whenever the Kennedy campaign scheduled a visit to a hospital or housing project, the institution would suddenly find itself receiving a long-sought contract or award on the eve of the senator's arrival. Kennedy grants, we called them.

But the president's power goes beyond his grant-making capacities, beyond his ability to marshal funds and make plum appointments.

President Eisenhower's chief of staff used to tell the story of bringing people in to see his boss after they had heaped criticism on him, telling him everything that he and the president had done wrong. Once inside the Oval Office, however, with the president looking them in the eye, staunch critics would turn into purring pussycats.

In my experience, it even happens with candidates. It's one thing to say no to the speaker or the chief of staff. It's quite another to say no to the president of your own party.

My bet is that the president will find his votes. If only Teddy were still here to be one of them.

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