Ted Kennedy wasn’t there to see it.
Instead, it was Democrats’ loss of his seat that sent the Senate’s health care bill through the House of Representatives mostly unchanged yesterday, causing, among other things, a hissy fit by a clique of older white men who decided that their right to rant about the unborn babies that might possibly be aborted by women with health insurance was more important than the rights of born (and grown up and working) people to have health insurance.
They didn’t succeed in stopping the bill. No, Bart Stupak and his coterie managed to finagle an executive order out of Obama upholding the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funds from being used for abortion. Even with that, they still got called “baby killers” on the House floor—by a Republican rep who had no intention of voting for the bill.
Indeed, no Republican voted for the bill. 34 Democrats also voted against the bill, a vastly watered-down piece of legislation that nevertheless will provide health insurance for some 32 million people (almost a million people for each Democrat who voted against it—interesting, no?) who don’t already have access.
I don’t mean to be a downer, though. Last night, I sat in a bar and toasted with friends with whom I canvassed, called, and organized for Obama leading up to the election, friends with whom I knocked back shots of Jack Daniels on election night 2008 and felt just for a moment that change was possible. We had the poor bartender turning the volume off and on on the TV, tuned to CSPAN, over and over again, drowning out the insincere laments for the unborn—think of the BABIES—and cheering Nancy Pelosi’s declaration that health care will now be enshrined in law as a right, not a privilege.
Of course, to truly create health care as a right we’d have to move from a system of requiring people to buy insurance to a system that provides care to all, but let me stop nitpicking. Really. Even Noam Chomsky said he’d have held his nose and voted for the bill, were he in Congress.
It’s a major victory for the Democrats, after all. In the face of rock-solid Republican opposition and dissent within the party over issues that should be taken for granted, an insurgent social movement and an entire cable news network, they passed one of the most important pieces of legislation in many of our lifetimes. Members of Congress who fought for the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, who were there to vote for Medicare and Medicaid, called it such, as they acknowledged its (large) limitations.
Adele Stan at AlterNet noted:
It took the first African-American president and the first woman Speaker of the House to do what generations of politicians had failed to do: create a federally regulated health-care reform program that extends health insurance coverage to the majority of Americans.
Reform is a slow process. Change is a slow process. And insisting on ideological purity only draws a smaller circle around you. But this bill takes another large step down the road started by Medicare and Medicaid, making the federal government responsible not only for health care for senior citizens and the abjectly poor, but for everyone.
It’s that principle that has the right wing howling. Shrieks about socialism weren’t enough, it seems, to keep a bill from passing—even taking over Ted Kennedy’s seat didn’t stop the bill, though it kept it from being a better bill. So now the rhetoric will be ratcheted up.
Already, radio host Neil Boortz has said that the bill will do more damage than 9/11.
As I sat in the bar last night, the TV muted for the moment, arguing prochoice politics with a familiar sparring partner, The Cure’s “Killing an Arab” came on in the background. The last time I heard that song played in public was right after 9/11, in a New Orleans dance club, along with “Rock the Casbah” and “Hazy Shade of Winter,” sweeping everyone up in a dancing frenzy of stupid jingoism in which the furthest left of us still for a moment repurposed those antiwar, antiviolence songs into some sort of revenge for what we’d watched on live TV. Spent from dancing, we went home and watched the president take what we felt on a dance floor and use it to take our country to war and regretted even for a moment giving in to that feeling.
Nine years later, that song reminded me of how ludicrous the comparison is; when I read Boortz’s comment (you didn’t think I actually listened to his program, did you?) I wanted to shake him. The national trauma of 9/11 was claimed and branded by a cynical right wing that now knows it only has limited time before it turns out that health care reform isn’t actually that bad and actually is pretty good and maybe even goes on to become one of those programs like Medicare – something that inspires more fierce fighting loyalty in Americans.
The fearmongering will continue. Outside of the Capitol Sunday, while lawmakers were grandstanding, tens of thousands gathered to demand fair, comprehensive immigration reform (another of Ted Kennedy’s favorite issues) for the millions of undocumented people in this country who were already tossed aside in the health care debate.
The battle over immigration, as a friend remarked to me on Saturday, will be leave us wishing for last August’s health care town halls. Health care had to be sold as a socialist takeover, branded with Obama’s race. Immigration comes with xenophobia built into the package.
Glenn Beck, tying those issues together neatly, declared that “Jesus Martinez” might support the health care bill, but “not the Jesus of Nazareth I know.” Beck will be at the forefront of the next fight, no doubt, weeping and excoriating his way into ever-higher ratings and book sales. But it’s important to remember that he lost this one.
Beck lost it to a woman Speaker of the House. He lost it to a black president. And he and the rest of them know that this change will wind up helping people, will wind up popular, and will be a chip Democrats can play when campaigning for office. That it will lay the foundation for more reform to come.
As we look down the road, at immigration, at financial reform, at the Employee Free Choice Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and all the rest of it, we have to remember what we stand for, and that it is worth the fight. And sometimes, on nights unfortunately too far apart, we can take some time out and raise a glass to imperfect victories.