Given the Affordable Care Act's multiple crises in its first month of implementation, there's no way President Obama and his fellow Democrats could be having a good time right now. But imagine if, instead of passing national health care legislation with only Democratic votes in 2009 and 2010, the president had won even a little Republican support for his health scheme. What if Obamacare had passed with ten GOP votes in the Senate and 30 or 40 in the House? If that had happened, the program would still be a mess, but Obama's political problems would be far less serious.
If Obama had 10 Republican senators and 30 or 40 GOP representatives on his side, those lawmakers would be invested in the program's success. And the GOP would be effectively divided on Obamacare, instead of solidly united. Some Republican lawmakers would likely favor approving additional money for implementing the troubled program, or perhaps favor holding off on vigorous oversight for a while, or at least not attacking 24-hours-a-day. Instead, Obama is facing a solid wall of Republican opposition.
There's a story about First Lady Hillary Clinton's attempt to pass a national health care plan back in 1993 and 1994. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the old Democratic senator, told her that such far-reaching legislation had to pass with a really big majority to make sweeping changes in American life. "They pass 70-to-30, or they fail," Moynihan told Clinton, according to a recent account by Todd Purdum in Politico.
Back in 1993, the Senate had 57 Democrats, meaning a major bill would have needed 13 Republican votes to pass Moynihan's test. As it turned out, Clinton ignored Moynihan's advice and her health care scheme went down in flames.
In 2009 and 2010, Barack Obama had an edge Clinton didn't have: three more Democrats in the Senate. That 60-vote total gave Obama a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and the opportunity to pass national health care with only Democratic votes. (With 256 Democrats in the House, passage there was a done deal.) But Obama's Senate supermajority was fragile and fleeting. As it turned out, Democrats had the briefest of moments in which they could pass such a far-reaching law by themselves. And even then, the troubled supermajority was unable to deliver the kind of broad support Moynihan felt necessary for such consequential legislation. This is from a piece I wrote in late 2010:
Obamacare is the product of a brief moment of total Democratic dominance in Washington. Key to that dominance was a 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority. It wasn't a sure bet for Democrats; despite victories in 2008, the party's hopes for that majority depended on the defection of formerly Republican Sen. Arlen Specter and the outcome of a contested race in Minnesota. After a controversial recount, Al Franken became the 60th Democratic senator on July 7, 2009, giving Democrats an unassailable edge.
But that majority disappeared just 49 days later when, on Aug. 25, 2009, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy died. State law called for a special election to fill the empty seat. That would have taken months, and as public opposition to Obamacare grew, Democrats became increasingly anxious to pass the bill as quickly as possible. Luckily for them, Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature came to the rescue, changing the law to allow the immediate appointment of Democrat Paul Kirk. Sworn in on Sept. 24, 2009, Kirk gave Democrats 60 votes once more.
After Obamacare passed the House on Nov. 7 -- over the opposition of 39 Democrats and all but one Republican -- Senate Democrats raced to get the job done. Threatening to keep the Senate in session through the holidays, they finally passed the bill -- 60 Democratic votes, not one to spare -- in the early hours of Christmas Eve.
Even as that vote was taken, a little-known Massachusetts Republican named Scott Brown was rising in the polls in the race for Kennedy's seat -- by promising to become the 41st vote against Obamacare. On Jan. 19, Brown's victory shocked the political world. When he was sworn in on Feb. 4, the second period of a Democratic filibuster-proof majority was over. It had lasted 134 days.
But that was long enough to pass Obamacare. Now, Obama is suffering the consequences of relying on just one party. When problems arose with his signature legislative achievement, he had no Republican support to help him out. None.
Many Democrats and their defenders in the press will answer that the president and Democrats had no choice but to go it alone back in '09 and '10, because Republican opposition was so intractable that a bipartisan agreement was simply impossible. That was certainly true if Obamacare had to be the measure that eventually passed. But what if it had been something different, something smaller and less intrusive in American lives? Then, perhaps, it could have won some Republican support. It wouldn't have been "universal" health care, and it would have disappointed many on the left. But it wouldn't have faced the prospect of full-scale disaster, either.