Okay, here you are, faced with a decision, perhaps the most important you’ll be given to make and the one with the most lasting consequences. You’re a smart operator. You know the numbers because you’ve done the calculus. You know that you’re a pragmatist surrounded everywhere by dreamers (isn’t that what all good Americans have been taught to do: dream?) You’re a realist with nothing but idealists—okay, ideologues—to left and right. It boils down to two choices.
Choice one, you outright reject compromise. Right off—who knows for how long?—you please those who voted for you under the delusion that you were some kind of Superman or Messiah, or at least a magician who could bring about the “change we can believe in” with the wave of a wand. You get to feel good about yourself for demonstrating that you have the spine that others in your party lack. You will also have done “the right thing” by your conscience, since this is clearly the right thing to do. You get to fly boldly in the face of your opponents…
BUT/AND… your calculus tells you that you could very well lose the bet, that the numbers don’t add up. Staking everything, you risk losing everything, and your deep sense of responsibility tells you that you could at least achieve something for those you have come here to serve. That you could open a door that might otherwise be slammed shut—and stay that way for years to come. Do you owe it to all Americans to do that little bit, even though it’s far less than you yourself might want, and far, far less than your supporters expect of you?
Choice two, you embrace compromise. Immediately everybody hates you. Your erstwhile supporters castigate you for having betrayed their trust, for wimping out to loud-mouthed ignorance, and for failing to stand up to the oligarchs in the insurance business. Your opponents at once despise you for your weakness and gloat over what they construe as your defeat.
BUT/AND you have come away with something that has eluded your predecessors for decades: the glimmerings of promise for the future, a door left open just a crack—one that might just give way under further pressure in the months and years to come. You will have done this as an act of service and sacrifice, for the sake of people who will recognize it as no favor but rather react as though you had just spat in their face. But still, in your heart you will cling to the belief that this was the best you could have done—though not one other person in the country shares your opinion.
Faced with such a choice, I honestly don’t know what I myself would do. The easy one is the no-compromise option. I don’t have the actual responsibility to countless millions of Americans, so I can settle for the self-satisfaction of pretending that I’d hang tough, I’d show those ignorant, self-important critics who’s in charge. I’d be “presidential.” I’d lead the charge into the teeth of the opposition. But then I ask myself: is that my ego talking, or my rational self?
I don’t know the answer. I do hope that Obama holds firm with some form of public option as his bottom line. At the same time, it would be an act of willful ignorance on my part NOT to acknowledge how hard a choice he faces, and how much depends, one way or the other on his resolve. I wish him well.