A Land War in Asia

The Speaker’s Lobby: A Land War In Asia

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

09 February 2010

The conventional wisdom holds that the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) confounded the Democrats’ health care reform efforts.

Certainly Brown was a part of it. But here’s the real problem: When it came to the health care reform battle, Democrats got involved in a land war in Asia.

The cult movie classic The Princess Bride warned that’s a big no-no.

“You fell victim to one of the classic blunders,” chortles one character in the film when he believes he’s outfoxed a rival. “The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia.’”

But sure enough, the Democrats got entrenched in a land war in Asia on health care reform.

Consider this: The health care reform campaign has been a protracted battle for Democrats. The fight dragged on for months. It soiled party morale and alienated some of the Democrats’ most loyal troops. After a while, the public grew restless, as exhibited at last August’s town hall protests. Yet the Democrats forged ahead. And against all odds, they moved a health care reform bill out of five Congressional committees last summer. They even passed health care bills in both the House and Senate. And just to get there, the Democratic leadership repeatedly cleared major parliamentary hurdles erected by Republicans at every turn.

In short, the Democrats won every major battle. Yet they still haven’t won the war.

Much like a battle fought in Asia more than 40 years ago.

The bill morphed and changed and evolved so many times that few lawmakers could even tell you what was in the bill. Or even what the final objective was. The health care debate dragged on and on. The public grew anxious. And at times, even violent.

The Democrats succeeded. But at a tremendous political cost.

Many of their members took tough votes on health care. Republicans now appear to be within striking distance of regaining control of the House. And Democrats are dazed as to the road ahead to finishing the job.

As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “Victory should be swift. If victory is slow, men tire, morale sags.”

At this stage for Democrats, health care could be their political Vietnam. A war with no clear exit strategy.

The health care reform effort now lingers in suspended animation. It’s in parliamentary purgatory. Frozen in carbonite like Han Solo. Side streets in the nation’s capital have a better chance of getting cleared of the prodigious snowfall before Democrats salvage their flagging health care reform bill.

Health care remains at the top of President Obama’s agenda. Or he so indicated in an interview with CBS’s Katie Couric on Sunday. And the president plans to jawbone health care reform with Republicans and Democrats at an open forum later this month. But Republicans are already skeptical. In a letter addressed to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) argued that “Republicans would rightly be reluctant to participate” unless Mr. Obama starts fresh.

“I anticipate making a decision (on how to proceed on health care) as soon as the way forward is clear,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said cryptically two weeks ago.

Visibility in Washington’s blizzard is clearer than the path ahead on health care reform.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll pass significant health care (reform),” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT). “I thought that before Massachusetts. I thought that after Massachusetts.”

All Democrats want to pass health care reform. But many lawmakers are restless about jobs and the economy. And their own jobs, come this fall. Many lawmakers running in swing districts want Democrats to pivot away from health care and get onto jobs.

But the land war continues.

“Don’t let health care even look like it’s on the back burner,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY). “You can’t even have it perceived that health care is dead.”

So the Congressional Progressive Caucus, an assemblage of the most liberal members of the House, fired off a letter a few days ago to Democratic leaders “to put a public option back on the table as health reform moves forward.”

The “public option” is where the government provides health insurance coverage for some Americans. That plan was all but dead in the Senate. And a scaled-down version of the public option limped out of the House. And now, with health care reform struggling for survival, some Democrats are pushing a provision that they could barely round up votes for in the first place.

Democrats slaved for the better part of a year and expanded incalculable political ammo in the health care jungles. In the House, they tacked on a controversial, anti-abortion amendment to guarantee the support of pro-life Democrats. Senate leaders had to craft special deals with Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) just to garner their support for the plan. Critics decried Landrieu’s to secure an extra $300 million in Medicaid as the “Louisiana Purchase.” Nelson asked for the federal government to pick up Nebraska’s tab for a proposed Medicaid expansion. Opponents assailed that horse trade as the “Cornhusker Kickback.”

“They did not help. They frustrate me,” Mr. Obama said to Couric about the side arrangements.

Those arrangements may have been essential to schlepping the health care bill through the Senate. But that contributed to the Democrats getting bogged down in what has become a political quagmire. The Democratic brain trust can’t satisfy liberals who want the bill to have more government involvement in health care. And other lawmakers, like Rep. Zack Space (D-OH) contend they can’t just vote for the Senate’s version of the bill in the House, citing the way in which the leadership courted Sens. Nelson and Landrieu.

So the Democrats continue fighting their land war in Asia. They’re taking heavy enemy fire on the front lines. Shrapnel is flying all over the place. And back home, people are protesting.

Democrats are cemented in a drawn-out war. And unlike Vietnam, just can’t declare victory and go home.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

– The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.