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Froma Harrop: Health care irony in Massachusetts

The miracle in Massachusetts was made possible through a bigger miracle four years ago. That's when the commonwealth became the first and so far only state to guarantee near-universal coverage. The Republican winner of the Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy, Scott Brown, voted for the legislation as a state senator. In vowing to be the key 41st vote against the Democrats' health care reforms, Brown carefully added that Massachusetts voters should not worry about their own health care security: They already have it through the state program.

Thus, Massachusetts was the worst state in which to test the wider public's feelings about national health care reform. Polls showed people in Massachusetts, as elsewhere, unhappy with the legislation in Washington. But those numbers include many who thought the reforms too weak or were simply disgusted by the legislative sausage-making. Whether these proposals were better than nothing is a meaningless question to people who already have something.

Their damp enthusiasm for Washington's reforms belies the popularity of the state reforms enacted in 2006. "It's not perfect," a Brown supporter told a reporter, "but why should we have to pay again when we have health care?"

Not perfect is an understatement. Unlike the legislation in Congress, the Massachusetts plan made virtually no effort to contain spiraling health care costs. That makes the plan, which Brown still supports, far less conservative than the national version he opposes.

Even though their reforms are superior, Democrats in Washington could have done better still by not trying to please everyone (including Republicans, who were just playing with them). But despite their control of the White House and majorities in Congress, Democrats seemed capable only of reacting to critics, of cringing with fear under even the most ludicrous attacks.

If you don't have the courage of your convictions, it doesn't matter whether your party has 59 or 60 or 65 seats in the Senate. Under President George W. Bush, Republicans got whatever they wanted with 50 senators.

The Democrats remind me of King Lear. Having given away his land, the source of kingly power, Lear turns to his fool for amusement and threatens to whip him. "I am better than thou art now," responds the cheeky fool, who like all Shakespeare fools, has everything figured out. "I am a fool; thou art nothing."

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