Democrats spent the past weekend trying to pretend nothing of importance happened on Friday. But despite the brave show they put on, few were buying their spin. The decision of 39 Democrats to cross the aisle and support Republican Rep. Fred Upton’s bill to allow insurance companies to go on selling policies to consumers that were cancelled by ObamaCare was a watershed event in a Congress which has been characterized by a stark partisan divide in recent years. Though it doesn’t necessarily mean that the president’s signature health-care plan is in immediate danger of repeal, it illustrates that a significant portion of the Democratic Party is not only not walking in lockstep on this issue anymore but that those who are most in danger of defeat next year are fleeing from the position of their party’s leader.
The Upton bill is dead on arrival in the Senate and President Obama has vowed to veto it. His administrative fix of the bill that would deal with his lie about people being able to keep their coverage has the same goal, at least in the short term. But the president’s solution (which is arguably unconstitutional and dependent on state insurance commissioners and insurance companies cooperating) is only for the coming year. Though presented as another way to repair a broken piece of legislation, liberals are right that Upton’s fix is more likely a death sentence since without the young and healthy being forced to buy into ObamaCare it will eventually collapse.
But the key point here is that in voting for a bill their leadership vigorously opposed, for the first time vulnerable Democrats are no longer acting as if President Obama was someone to follow and/or to fear. The Upton vote was, if we needed one, a declaration on the part of many of the president’s supporters that he is a lame duck. The ObamaCare crackup of the Democratic Party has officially begun.
Through his five years in office, the president’s power has been based on two key factors. One was his hold on the affections of the mainstream media that played a crucial role in his reelection in 2012. That began to fray this year as scandals, including those that involved targeting of the media, alienated portions of his press cheering section. That influenced much of the coverage of the ObamaCare rollout debacle as the unsparing approach to the dysfunctional website extended to the furor over the president’s “incorrect” promise that no one would lose coverage they liked.
But also important was his ability to count on a relatively united Democratic congressional caucus. Though some on the left thought him too tame or too unwilling to confront Republicans, the critical mass of their party stayed loyal to their leader and to his biggest liberal project. No Democrats budged when Republicans thought to hold up the funding of the government in a vain effort to stop the implementation of ObamaCare. But now that the program is revealed to have caused considerable pain to millions of the middle-class Americans—and with the real possibility that more is to come for the rest of the country once the impact of the legislation is felt across the board—they vowed to protect, Democrats who are worried about getting reelected in 2014 are heading for the exits.
As analyst Stu Rothenberg noted in Roll Call, 23 of 25 House Democrats who are in trouble in 2014 defected from the president’s position on ObamaCare. While the vast majority of seats held by both parties are not competitive, that slice of the House in districts that only “lean Democrat” understand that taking a stand in favor of a bill that has always been deeply unpopular, but which is now in danger of becoming a millstone around their party’s neck, is not good politics. Though House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi claimed yesterday that her party would “stand tall” on the issue, Friday’s vote was a signal that a key portion of her caucus has no intention of standing or sitting anywhere near something that will further tie them to an issue that could end their careers.
Like many fearful conservatives, the president and his supporters have assumed all along that once more benefits were being distributed to the people, ObamaCare would become not only popular but also bulletproof. They now know that is not going to be the case. Democrats are still hoping against hope that the bill will work well enough to avoid complete disaster, but the embrace of Upton’s poison pill by 39 of Pelosi’s members illustrates that a considerable portion of her party wants insurance against the taint of ObamaCare.
The president understands that this is an indicator of how Democrats in Congress will treat him for the rest of his term. The assumption has always been that any second-term president loses his party’s loyalty after the midterms, but many Democrats are coming to the conclusion that such a schedule is one year too late to do them any good. Upton’s bill may be nothing more than a footnote in the history of the battle over ObamaCare. But it is a turning point in the Democratic crackup and the process by which Barack Obama is being transformed into a lame duck.