If you needed any additional evidence that health-care-reform-as-we-know-it has gone the way of the Dodo, look no further than Obama's remarks on the subject today:
"We've gotten pretty far down the road, but I have to admit, we've run into a bit of a buzz saw along the way. The long process of getting things done runs headlong into the special interests, their armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And the longer it's taken, the uglier the process has looked."
If we're sticking with Paul Krugman's superhero theory of President Obama, then it appears that Scott Brown is his Kryptonite; the biggest initiative on the administration's domestic policy agenda is all but dead. Sure, Obama and the rest of the Democratic leadership are still making vague promises to stick with the health care reform project, but they're also saying that they don't have the votes, and that it's no longer their top priority (that would be taking on the Big Bad Bankers). The message now is, "Health care reform… um, it's great! We totally think so! Really! And we'll do it, or something kinda like it, you know, someday. Someday… later. Probably. Now watch me fight Goldman Sachs!"
Liberals are pretty upset, and warning that if Democrats back off now, they'll suffer at the polls in November. Here's how the logic goes: Even if you accept that health care reform is unpopular, Democrats will still fare better if they go ahead and pass it. After all, most Democrats have already voted for health care reform, so pass or fail, Republicans are going to run health care focused ads against them. Democrats could decide to vote against a bill at this point, but it wouldn't change the Republican ads. At least if Democrats actually pass the bill, they'll have something to show for it—tangible benefits they present to the voters.
This argument sounds convincing at first, but I think it's flawed in a couple of ways. First is that passing the bill won't actually provide much in the way of tangible benefits by November 2010. Most of the spending—and thus the benefits—doesn't kick in until 2014. I also suspect that those inevitable Republican attack ads, which liberals are right to note will come no matter what the final outcome, will be far less effective if the bill dies a slow death on Washington's low-priority back burner.
Think of it this way: If health care goes away, it will still be an issue in November. But a bill that doesn't pass isn't likely to motivate voters as intensely as one that does. Passing the bill, on the other hand, would focus and energize opposition against it. The liberal case for voting for the bill presumes that after it's passed, people will finally start to like it, that the case for its merits that they've been struggling to make all year long will finally sink in. But if Democrats haven't convinced people that it's a good idea in an entire year of debate—indeed, they've done just the opposite—what are the odds they'll be able to sell people on its virtues after passage?