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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The President's Choice

Poll after poll shows the public has real concerns about the health care proposals working their way through the Congress, as well as the President's handling of the issue. Even the latest CBS News/New York Times poll - whose 22/37 Republican/Democrat split has probably not been seen in an actual election since 1936 - shows a confused and divided public.

In this country, it is highly inadvisable for political leaders to pass such sweeping reforms absent a consensus that is both broad and deep. Such a consensus simply does not exist on this issue. If the President and Democratic leaders move forward with their plans anyway - despite these plainly and clearly expressed doubts - they risk reaping the whirlwind.

The Framers of the Constitution learned the lessons of the 17th century well, when the Stuart monarchs claimed Divine Authority and persistently harassed and undermined the English Parliament. The men who designed our system had the good sense to mandate regularly scheduled, frequently occurring elections to the House of Representatives. In most instances, the public does not feel compelled to use this opportunity to impose drastic changes on Washington, D.C. In 2006 and 2008, it did feel so compelled, and the political implications of its actions were far-reaching.

If the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats continue putting forward reforms that (at best) divide and confuse the public (and depending on the poll, unify the public in opposition) - they risk the wrath of the electorate in just 14 months time. Per the Constitution, "all bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives." If it is the case that the Republicans take a House majority - or win enough seats to form a practical center-right coalition with Blue Dogs - the House's power of the purse will be sufficient to halt the President's domestic policy agenda in its tracks. I suspect that Republican leaders would take a cue from Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats circa 2007: they would intuit that their best bet was to grind the government to a halt by not working with President Obama, and force him to defend a "broken" system come 2012.

It does not have to be this way. If the President would narrow the scope of these overly ambitious reforms, it is likely that he could formulate a broad legislative consensus on changes to the health care system. He would not win the more conservative legislators, of course, but he would win moderate and moderately conservative Republicans, and by extension enjoy broader public support. This would help minimize his party's losses come next November, and put him in better shape for reelection.

This is the President's choice. By all indications, he is choosing the ambitious reform package that the country is wary of. If he ultimately does select this option, my prediction is that the next few years in politics will be unpleasant for just about everybody.

-Jay Cost