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A Few Thoughts on Father Bob and the State of the Union

First, a word on Father Robert Drinan, who passed away a few days ago. I got to know Drinan — we called him Father Bob — soon after he was elected to the House as a Massachusetts Democrat in 1970. He was an immediate force to be reckoned with — whip smart, passionately liberal, deeply devout and incredibly charming. He brought moral force and clarity to every argument he made, and he did so with such great intellectual honesty and passion that he made few if any enemies even when he took positions that left him in a tiny minority in the House. [IMGCAP(1)]

He was by no means an agent of the church, but his faith animated his life, and he used it to focus on injustices he saw in the world. He was a terrific Member of Congress, and I was sad to see him forced to leave the House after the church adopted a policy banning its clergy from serving in legislative posts. He went back to teaching law school, at Georgetown, and stayed active in the intellectual debates in Washington. He lived the modest life of a parish priest, but he lived large and did much good in the world.

Moving on. Post-State of the Union, a few observations are in order. The first is that Iraq dominated the evening even more than I had thought it would. President Bush’s speech had two halves. The first, on domestic policy, had some interesting new initiatives, but it was delivered in a crisp but flat style, almost as if the president were dutifully going through a checklist. The second half, on terrorism and Iraq, got his juices flowing — but also those of his audience in the chamber.

The reaction afterward, across the networks, focused heavily, even overwhelmingly, on Iraq. That may not be surprising, given the immensity and gravity of the issue, but if it is a signal of the year ahead, it does not bode well for major advances on the domestic front. The clashes over Iraq clearly will grow over the coming months, including tough challenges over constitutional powers and responsibilities, a tug of war over the troop surge along with expanding oversight hearings on the conduct of the war (and the reconstruction) over the past three years. Transcending the bitterness and tension this will bring to reach agreement on health, education or energy — especially agreement that will be sweeping enough to bring resistance from the bases of both parties — will be very hard to do.

While it is in Democrats’ interest to reach some agreements in these areas — to show they run the “do something” Congress, and to make progress in areas voters really care about — you would not have known it from their reactions to Bush’s initiatives, which on the whole could be called dismissive. That was true especially on the health policy front, where curtly dismissive would be the more accurate descriptor.

The health area is one where real movement is taking place, shaking the tectonic plates that have been stable for a long time. Voters care about this issue, and the concern goes way beyond the more than 40 million uninsured. Recently, we had a remarkable alliance formed, called the Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured, that stretches from AARP, Families USA and the Catholic Health Association to the Chamber of Commerce, AMA and AHIP, the major health insurers’ group, offering common-sense, incremental steps to expand significantly the number of insured Americans.

At the same time, interesting ideas are emerging in the states and elsewhere in Congress. California has joined Massachusetts with plans that start with a universal requirement of insurance and move from there to find ways to allow everyone to get an insurance plan. We will find out relatively soon whether the Massachusetts plan can actually work, but the fact that it was adopted with support across the political spectrum is itself an accomplishment. And the fact that California has jumped into the fray is a sign that many states may do just what the framers hoped they would: act as laboratories to see what can actually work in practice and try things that fit the circumstances and zeitgeist of their own residents.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has come up with his own, ingenious plan to require all Americans to be insured, one that eventually moves the country from one where employer-provided insurance is the norm and that keeps all existing actors in the game. A nifty part of his plan is to have as basic, minimum coverage for all Americans the basic plan that is now available to Members of Congress. Blend some parts of the Wyden plan with some parts of the Bush plan, change the Bush tax deduction into a refundable tax credit, and you might have a fusion plan that could itself change the whole debate in Washington.

Wyden is a model himself, a progressive Democrat who is regularly looking for bold ideas that go beyond ideological orthodoxy to try to find a new middle ground. He did this on tax reform before he tried it on health reform. Both the new Health Coverage Coalition and the Wyden health initiative show that there can be common ground across the left-right divide. Will Iraq leave any running room to find some?

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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