As the politicians who support the president's health care plans escape back into Washington from America -- and as the politicians who oppose the president's health care plans leave their safe redoubt in the heartland and go once more behind the lines into the hostile territory of the Federal Triangle -- only one thing is certain: We don't know the end of this story.
If we had a plebiscite on it today, polls show the president's plan would lose. But we are governed by representative government, not plebiscite. And our representatives represent many things. They represent their own convictions, their contributors' interests, their political parties' interests, their own career interests, their voters' interests and opinions, and -- on occasion -- what they see as the national interest.
Virtually every congressman's congressional votes reflect -- to different degrees -- each of those considerations. While that may sound cynical, it is just realistic. Sometimes a variation on that theme may seem noble. Consider the closing remarks on President George H.W. Bush's tax increase and budget proposal by Leon Panetta back in 1990, when Panetta was Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee: "Deficit reduction is the only proven tool for assuring long-term growth. ... Rise above your regional interests. Rise above ideology and partisanship, and cast a vote for the greater good of the country."
I cite those words for two reasons. First, the great congressional fight over Bush's 1990 tax increase may be a better model for how this year's health care fight may play out than the over-cited 1993-94 Clinton health care bill. And second, for amusement's sake -- as it is unlikely that any leading Democrat in 2009 (considering the administration's almost $10 trillion in new deficits) is going to be making Panetta's argument that only deficit reduction can lead us back to prosperity.
The symmetry between then and now is noteworthy. In 1988, Bush won his presidential election, inter alia
, on the promise of "read my lips, no new taxes." Once in office, he proposed tax increases to reduce the deficit. (Deficit reduction had long been an argument for Republican tax increases that Bush had promised to resist.)
The senior congressional leadership of both parties supported the tax increase. But the liberals opposed it as too regressive (didn't soak the rich enough), and conservatives and some moderates, led by my old boss Newt Gingrich, who was the House minority whip, opposed it because it raised taxes at all.