There is a rueful note in today's New York Times report of impending White House triumph in "a process that has at times seemed on the brink of anarchy":
"After months of plodding work by five Congressional committees and weeks of back-room bargaining by Democratic leaders, President Obama’s arms-length strategy on health care appears to be paying dividends, with the House and the Senate poised to take up legislation to insure nearly all Americans."
One criticism of all this chaos can be easily dismissed--that, as Matthew Yglesias shows, "Obama needs to be nicer to Republicans." Lack of bipartisanship on health care is like accusing the President of refusing to play tennis when nobody is on the other side of the net.
More important is the reality of Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin's observation, “When you are seeking 60 votes, every person is a kingmaker."
For only one example out of many, there is loathsome Joe Lieberman who, after being allowed to keep his committee chairmanship despite campaigning for McCain last year, is threatening to filibuster against any public option in totally predictable loyalty to the insurance companies that dominate his state rather than the President who forgave his own disloyalty.
Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal rails against "The Worst Bill Ever" ("Epic new spending and taxes, pricier insurance, rationed care, dishonest accounting: The Pelosi health bill has it all"), it's hard to refute those epic distortions about the many thousands of dense pages that are working their way through both houses of Congress.
These coming weeks will be a test for the Obama "arm's-length strategy," his instinct for consensus rather than strong leadership from the top.
According to one of his favorite philosophers, Reinhold Niebuhr, "Moral reason must learn how to make coercion its ally without running the risk of a Pyrrhic victory in which the ally exploits and negates the triumph."
But on the other hand, the mid-20th century's most eminent Protestant theologian never had to contemplate the arm-twisting that passes for reasoning with both allies and foes on Capitol Hill.
As in the debate over Afghanistan, the President is going to have to step up with decisiveness and persuade all the competing interests to follow his leadership.