Barack Obama told the House Democratic Caucus before the roll call vote on health care on Nov. 7 that they would be better off politically if they passed the bill than if they let it fail. Bill Clinton speaking to the Senate Democrats' lunch on Nov. 10 cited his party's big losses in 1994 after Congress failed to pass his health care legislation as evidence that Democrats would suffer more from failure to pass a bill than from disaffection with a bill that was signed into law.
These were closed meetings, but we can safely assume that the two Democratic presidents also assured their fellow partisans that health care legislation would do all sorts of good things for the American people. We know Obama did say that Democrats should "answer the call of history," even though America has gotten along pretty well without government-run health insurance for some 220 years.
But political calculations are always on politicians' minds. The two presidents were urging passage of legislation that has become increasingly unpopular as its provisions become more widely known. They were speaking at a time when Gallup tells us that only 47 percent of Americans think providing health insurance is a government responsibility, down from 69 percent just two years ago.
So despite their assurances, it's unclear whether Democrats will be better off passing a bill or seeing one fail. In political discourse, it's often assumed that there is some clear path to a favorable outcome. But sometimes both paths lead down.
The question is how you got to that point or, more specifically, how Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders decided to make expensive health care legislation a No. 1 priority at a time when the nation was facing enervating unemployment, now at 10.2 percent and rising far higher than White House projections.
Obama seemed to acknowledge as much when he announced, just before embarking on his trip to Asia, that he will convene a White House "jobs summit" in December. Obama credited his administration, justifiably in my view, for stabilizing financial markets and preventing an even steeper economic downturn, and he might have credited, but didn't, his predecessor's administration for that, as well.