GOP Wins Have Nothing to Do With Obama

By Gail Collins, New York Times - November 7, 2009

Here we are at the big Health Care Bill Weekend! The House of Representatives is actually getting ready to vote on legislation. How long has this been in the works, anyway? Was “Mad Men” on TV when the debate started? Had TV been invented?

Gail Collins

Gail Collins and David Brooks talk between columns.

On the eve of the big vote, leaders admitted that things could stretch into next week. But no later than Tuesday. Unless something else happens. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Anyhow, we concerned citizens need to decide exactly what we’re rooting for. Public option? Which one? How much would you care if there were none at all? For some people, a health care bill without a public option is like a car without an engine. For others — including some members of the Obama administration — it’s more like a car without a hood ornament.

Everything was thrown into an uproar by this week’s elections, when people in Virginia and New Jersey voted down a deeply unpopular Democratic governor and a deeply incompetent Democratic would-be governor. This has been interpreted as a sign that the much-beloved independent voter thinks Obama is not doing enough, and also too much.

Congress is panicking! This happens quite a bit, but right now they’re behaving like a herd of overly caffeinated cattle that missed the last train connection.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing but confidence and serenity among the right-wing tea-party types. They cannot get over the triumph in upstate New York, where thanks to their really extraordinary efforts, a completely safe Republican seat went to the Democrats. Think how far their movement has come! Only a few months ago, they barely had the power to disrupt a town meeting. And soon they will be able to destroy anything in their path, including their own party, like conservative locusts.

The tea-party folk were back in Washington at the end of the week for a rally against the health care bill called by Representative Michele Bachmann, Washington’s newest Famous Strange Person. Their extreme enthusiasm and cheer was truly awesome.

Representative Todd Akin of Missouri led the rally in the Pledge of Allegiance — noting that the part about “one nation under God” always “drives the liberals crazy.” Then he promptly forgot the rest of the words. In most hyperpatriotic groups, the inability of a Congressman to remember that this is one nation indivisible might be a downer. But the crowd responded like a troop of pumped-up motivational speakers.

“Great job!” someone cried without the least trace of cynicism.

“That was awesome, Todd!” yelled someone else.

You cannot totally dislike a group with that kind of team spirit, so I hope those were not the exact same people carrying the sign that equated the health care bill with the Holocaust.

There was something sort of touching, in an eerie, slightly disturbing way, when John Ratzenberger — the guy who once played the mailman on “Cheers” — told the crowd that the health care bill advocates were “Woodstock Democrats” like Abbie Hoffman and Wavy Gravy. The crowd seemed on the old side, but is it really possible that any of them are still worrying about Abbie Hoffman? That any of them knew who Wavy Gravy is? Wasn’t his main claim to fame giving out free granola? Is this a problem we need to deal with at the present moment?

But I digress, sort of. If the health care vote happens this weekend, perhaps you will want to flip back and forth between the football games. Try to picture Minority Leader John Boehner as an overage cheerleader with a strange-colored tan.

A while back, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was promising that the House bill would have a “robust” public option that would have offered real competition to the insurance companies, thus driving costs down. But then Pelosi was faced with a mini-rebellion from red state Democrats who were terrified by the news of Republican victories in races having nothing whatsoever to do with Barack Obama, Congress or health care, and she modified the plan.

Now it’s a nonrobust option, sort of like decaf instant coffee. And even if it passes, the bill will go to the Senate where everybody is embroiled in an argument over whether the public option should involve a trigger, as Olympia Snowe urges, or an opt-out, which Majority Leader Harry Reid is peddling, or be eliminated altogether so the red state Democrats are pacified and Joe Lieberman does not go through with his threat to filibuster.

Although Lieberman is no longer a Democrat and backed John McCain in the last election, his former party did let him hang around and keep his important committee chairmanship. Supporting an attempt to kill the Democrats’ most important piece of legislation through a parliamentary procedure would be a tad churlish. But there we are.

The health care bill has a lot to recommend it anyway, but if you’re a public option fan, where do you draw the line?

Personally, in these moments of crisis, I generally recommend looking to see where Joe Lieberman is going. Then head the other way.

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