BY THE TIME OUR next issue arrives on your desk, mid-term elections will have come and gone, and we will be figuring out how the political landscape will have changed. For me, it provides an unusual challenge. There will be a Republican stampede or a surprising Democrat defense; either way I need to have two covers ready to go, which is something we don’t do very often.
A great deal is at stake in this mid-term, and it reminds me of the 1994 “Republican Revolution” in which the GOP won control of Congress off the backlash against the Clinton administration’s efforts to create a national healthcare plan. Back then, Clinton’s efforts struck me as an ill-fated effort to do what we Hearts players call “shooting the moon.”
If you haven’t played the card game Hearts, the goal is to avoid taking points, but sometimes in a hand, if you take every point that can be had, then everybody else takes points. In this game, it’s the equivalent of going for broke; by the time you start shooting, everybody else at the table knows it, and all they have to do is take a single point to leave you with a huge, ugly score at the end of the hand. This is why most players never try to shoot the moon unless they are dealt a hand that makes success really likely. Sometimes you get a hand that is too terrible to play, but not terrible enough to shoot with comfortably. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can salvage the hand, shoot the moon and avoid catastrophe. But most likely, you must face the unpalatable decision between taking points and more points.
Back in ’92-’93, that’s how Clinton’s healthcare effort felt. It just didn’t seem like he had enough political power in Congress to make healthcare a reality, but he had the best chance that was going to come by for a long time, so he took his chances. He got stuffed, and burned most of his political capital doing it, too. And even though he stuck around for two terms, he never got much done except for empowering his opposition.
Fast forward to 2008, and Obama is sitting where Clinton was, except with a much, much better hand. At this point, he’s a fool to not shoot the moon. I mean, if he doesn’t try for healthcare with a Democratic Congress headed by Pelosi, then he’s an idiot. So he goes for it, and he gets it, and it’s a big victory for him. But here’s the downside of shooting the moon successfully: it leaves the other players so burned that it becomes even more difficult to shoot again. Your opponents are not about to let you submarine them twice in the same game. (At least, not the cut-throats that I play with.) And so, you spend the rest of the game with a bulls-eye painted on you. Even though you might have won a single hand in spectacular fashion, sometimes you lose the game just because you drew too much heat upon yourself.
I wonder if that’s how these mid-terms will play out. There are a lot of races that are likely to go the GOP’s way, and the sudden emergence of the Tea Party–whose candidates’ ideological fervor seems to make up for their political inexperience–has a chance of making a lasting impact on our political scene. The 1994 Republican Revolution changed politics in this country in a big way. Will the Great Tea Party of 2010 do the same? Lacking a crystal ball, I cannot say. But as the President’s position looks increasingly beleaguered, I wonder if Obama will think healthcare was still worth it once Congress is filled with those who are convinced it was the worst idea in American politics since Prohibition.