It's the question hidden in many of the angry whispers in some corners of Washington, as well as the question behind the stunning plot twist that launched those public celebrations among the supporters of the Senate health-care reform bill. It's also a question, alas, that is not attracting ink in mainstream publications -- other than, perhaps, on op-ed page pieces. More on that point in a minute.
Why did Rep. Bart Stupak do it? Why did he choose to pass the health-care bill, in exchange for an executive order from President Barack Obama that did not inspire a single pro-abortion-rights Democrat to raise their voices or change their votes on the bill, as they had vowed to do if the legislation included tougher language on abortion?
Stupak appears to think that he got the best deal he was going to be able to get, if the goal was to pass health care and protect the unborn. Over at Slate.com, John Dickerson actually talked to the man himself, yielding this:
(Stupak) praised the health care bill and the compromise that ultimately secured his vote. "Some people say this piece of paper isn't worth it, but I would remind them that in 2007, when George W. Bush signed the executive order to prevent stem-cell research, these groups that are criticizing it, they applauded it, they welcomed it; and now President Obama's going to sign an executive order once again protecting life and somehow it's not worth the paper it's written on. You can't have it both ways."
At the Daily Beast, the Rush Limbaugh of the left -- that would be filmmaker Michael Moore -- offered another theory, which actually makes some sense. Stupak's district is heavily Catholic, but labor unions are another crucial part of the equation. Like Stupak himself, many labor union leaders wanted health care to past. They may have demanded that it pass.
Thus, Moore claims that his efforts to get angry citizens to call Stupak was the force that broke the stalemate. Here's a piece of that (be on the alert for scare quotes, which are certainly the norm at this kind of "news" site):
Stupak, and his seven "right to life" Democrats who had said they would vote against the bill, reversed themselves after what Stupak said ... was a week of his staff having "really taken a pounding." Hey, all we did here in northern Michigan was let him know that we would be unceremoniously tossing him out of Congress in this August's Democratic primary. One of our group announced she would oppose him in the Dem primary. That seemed to register with him.
On other words, the mainstream members of the party -- Moore? -- read Stupak the riot act and said they would terminate his career in Washington, D.C., if he didn't compromise. Was this old-fashioned threat enough to break him? Could be. That's the sort of thing that journalists often like to document.
However, the best material I have found so far in the mainstream press is on the editorial pages (or weblogs linked to them). This is sad, I think, since it implies that the facts and motives behind the key moment in The Hill's biggest story of the year are not really newsworthy.
Note, for example, that columnist Kathleen Parker actually went to the trouble to call sources in the mainstream pro-life movement to look for evidence of what caused the Democrats for Life crowd to accept the executive order fix.
One can reasonably surmise that Obama, a former constitutional law professor, is well aware of the uselessness of his promise. Perhaps this is why he didn't mention it during the bill-signing ceremony Tuesday.
Stupak, too, knew that the executive order was merely political cover for him and his pro-life colleagues. He knew it because several members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explained it to him, according to sources. The only way to prevent public funding for abortion was for his amendment to be added to the Senate bill.
Several bishops went directly to Stupak or was it a delegation from the staff of the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops? That would be a nice, newsy fact to know.
It appears that Parker talked to other people who have been speaking in press releases and on niche-news sites, but not in mainstream stories. The result hints at another dramatic scene that took place away from the action that was featured in the news.
... The health-care bill passed because of a mutually understood deception -- a pretense masquerading as virtue. No wonder Stupak locked his doors and turned off his phones on Sunday, according to several pro-life lobbyists who camped outside his office.
Something must have gone bump in the night.
Whatever it was, demonizing Stupak seems excessive and redundant given punishments to come. Already he has lost a speaking invitation to the Illinois Catholic Prayer Breakfast next month. His political future, otherwise, may have been foretold by a late-night anecdote.
After the Sunday vote, a group of Democrats, including Stupak, gathered in a pub to celebrate. In a biblical moment, New York Rep. Anthony Weiner was spotted planting a big kiss on Stupak's cheek. To a Catholic man well versed in the Gospel, this is not a comforting gesture.
However, the most sensible theory -- the one that will trouble some Democrats and should trouble many Republicans -- appeared in the New York Times weblog of op-ed columnist Ross Douthat, a traditional Catholic who started paying close attention to the plight of pro-life Democrats more than a year ago. (GetReligion started writing about the health-care endgame back in November of 2008.)
Douthat asks a basic, I would argue tragic question: What political options did Stupak actually have?
... (There) are still pro-life Democrats for a reason: Because many abortion opponents can't reconcile their views on social justice with the harder-edged, "any redistribution equals socialism" tendencies in the Republican Party. Some of these pro-lifers are older Catholic Democrats like Stupak; some of them are younger Americans who are hostile to abortion but don't vote on the issue because they can't imagine themselves being represented by the party of Limbaugh and Beck. A successful pro-life politics desperately needs these constituencies to find representation -- and if there's no place for anti-abortion sentiment among the Democrats, then pro-lifers need the Republican Party to feel hospitable to voters whose impulses on social policy tend in a more communitarian direction.
Anyone interested in seeing that logic argued as part of a poignant life story, just click here and invest a small amount of loose change.
Now, where did I put that box of tissues?