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Pelosi plays whack-a-mole on health care

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Borger: Pelosi uses salesmanship to get health care through the House
  • She says bipartisanship is essentially a thing of the past
  • Parties once found a way to get to yes on major public policy, she says
  • But now the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal in GOP, she says
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Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "Campbell Brown," "AC360°" and "State of the Union With John King," as well as during special event coverage.

(CNN) -- The story so far: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does everything in her power to get health care reform passed by keeping her Democratic caucus together.

She keeps liberals by insisting on a public option. She works on fiscal moderates by re-jiggering it. She works on lowering the cost of the package. She pays for it by taxing millionaire couples, appealing to the class-warfare crowd.

And to keep the Catholic bishops (and their moderate allies) on board, she keeps severe restrictions on paying for abortion in the measure. The liberals, of course, threaten to bolt -- but it remains in the final package.

This is not legislating; it's whack-a-mole.

The challenge is simply to try and keep your unruly team in line, and maybe pick up a stray vote or two from the opposition. If you succeed, it's not about bipartisanship. It's just salesmanship.

Back in the day, when Democrats and Republicans actually thought that achievement was the key to survival (seems a quaint notion now, doesn't it?), they found a way to get to yes on major public policy. Not that it was easy or apolitical; hardly. But it got done -- with distinct fingerprints from both parties on the final product. Imagine that.

Consider this: When Ronald Reagan came to town and Democrats derided his tax cuts, they still found a way to bargain with the president -- and gave him 113 votes in the House, 26 in the Senate. Sure, as House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously said, the Democratic strategy was to give the president "enough rope" to do himself in. Not a noble ideal, to be sure, but an acknowledgement of the GOP post-election mandate.

And what was President Obama's mandate? To get something done in Washington, to change the way it does business, to fix the system. He was elected with 52 percent of self-described independent voters looking for the middle way in American politics -- a group that is the key to any election.

Indeed, while the two political parties continue to shrink (with the GOP almost at oblivion, at nearly an all-time low of 24 percent), the independents may be the only healthy political entity in the nation.

And now they're disillusioned with Obama, too. He can't find the center he promised and govern from it, so polls show they're starting to look elsewhere for happiness.

Good luck with that. In truth, this isn't a problem Obama handed himself because he proposed too much government intervention or by just being too liberal. It's a pre-existing condition because the Congress is more polarized than it's been in more than a century.

The ideological gap between the two parties is a huge rift, says Brookings Institution political scholar William Galston. His calculus: In the Senate today, the most conservative Democratic senator is more liberal than the most liberal GOP senator. Ipso facto, how can anyone possibly cut a deal?

We've handed ourselves this problem due to the politics of redistricting: the politicians draw the political districts, so they become partisan safety nets. In fact, the real political arguments are now within each party, and not between the parties (which barely communicate, anyway).

"Everybody is more afraid of losing a seat in a primary than a general election," says Ed Gillespie, a GOP strategist who maneuvered Bob McDonnell to the governor's mansion in Virginia. He's right, especially after the GOP fratricide in upstate New York in this last election.

So as House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid move to the next steps of this debate, the old adage argued by the wise New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan seems sadly quaint: that major social change must come from a broad and bipartisan leadership coalition.

The Moynihan law may be one the president believed before taking office. But the principle gave way to the reality: that while the center in American politics may resonate with the voters, it is nonexistent in the Congress.

It's one more disconnect between Washington and the country. And the president can't fix it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.