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A big day for US Democrats

Published:Thursday | March 25, 2010 | 12:00 AM

A game-changer? The kind of dramatic sports language beloved of American columnists may be a bit overblown. But for once, it may not be inappropriate. US Republicans still insist that the health-reform legislation adopted by the US Congress on the weekend is doomed to failure, and will turn the American electorate against the Democratic Party (which provided the bill's only support). Nonetheless, the legislation's passage may well have turned the tide of the sometimes-ugly game that is US politics.

First off is the fact that for all its pared-back ambitions, the legislation is still pretty bold. America will still remain the only industrial democracy without universal health insurance; nonetheless, the numbers of uninsured will decline markedly. Moreover, insurance companies will be required to provide coverage they now find ways of denying.

After Democrats lost their Senate supermajority in the Massachusetts election, Republicans declared 'Obamacare' dead. Even moderate Democrats agreed, and were advising the US president to retreat into Clintonian gradualism for the remainder of his term. But as if saying "you voted for change, you'll get change", Mr Obama decided to go down fighting, if need be. He staked everything on passing the legislation. Had it failed, his presidency might have been crippled.

A win is a win

But it passed. Narrowly, perhaps, but a win is a win. It has put some wind back into his administration's sails. Meanwhile, Republicans now have their own gamble to reckon with. Because most Americans still oppose the legislation, Republicans judged that outright opposition was a vote-getter. But there is more to those poll figures than meet the eye. Nearly a third of those who oppose the bill dislike it not for the reason Republicans do - that it represents too great an intrusion by the federal government into American life - but because they think the bill does too little.

Moreover, the Republicans warned darkly that Obamacare would drive up taxes, blow the deficit, create death panels to determine who lives and dies, remove existing access, kill babies and generally destroy America. I'm not making this up. Now they will be held accountable if any of those predictions fail to come true.

All the while, as health care is improved for Americans, new constituencies will emerge to defend the legislation. Some of these will develop fairly quickly. If Republicans really do press ahead with a campaign to repeal the legislation, they will risk being seen as the "party of no" in this year's midterm elections.

Big handicap

Democrats aren't out of the woods. They're still running with a big handicap: the lingering recession. It is easy to pillory the Obama administration for focusing on 'exotic' issues like health care and energy when it should really be worried about American jobs. But even on that front, there is still a chance that the nascent American recovery will pick up speed in the coming months. Next November, things might not be quite as bad as they are today.

Still, they'll be bad. Moreover, the Obama administration is still saddled with the reputation it has acquired for doling out taxpayers' money to rich bankers. That is no doubt why Mr Obama has immediately pivoted to focus on financial reform. He needs to now been seen as going after the plutocrats that helped cause the recession that is punishing his compatriots.

You have to give him credit. He staked the ranch on what looked like a dodgy hand of cards, yet he pulled it off. Americans love a winner. Their native optimism also gives them a soft spot for the optimist ready to gamble big. The pay-off for the Democratic Party could be substantial.

John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), an independent research think tank affiliated with the University of the West Indies, Mona. Feedback may be sent to