The epic politics and policy years of 2008 and 2009

What has followed has been one of the most intense and dramatic policy years in memory. The stimulus plan, health care reform, auto industry rescue, energy and carbon cap-and-trade issues are playing out vividly in the state; we have had long and special sessions of the Indiana General Assembly. President Obama has been here three times.

Just in the last week, perhaps as many as 4,000 Hoosiers turned out for town hall meetings conducted by U.S. Reps. Baron Hill, Joe Donnelly, Mark Souder, Mike Pence, Dan Burton and 9th CD Republican challenger Todd Young in places like Anderson, Richmond, Columbus, Brownstown, New Albany, Middlebury, Fort Wayne, Michigan City and Bloomington. On Wednesday, hundreds of dueling pro and anti reform citizens gathered in Valparaiso and Lafayette for MoveOn candlelight vigils.

When this fascinating town hall sequence ends this month, the number of citizens approaching 10,000 will have turned out in public forums – either physically at town halls, Rotary Clubs or in telephone conference calls – to discuss health care reforms.

“The people elected me understanding what my position was on health care,” Rep. Souder told the Elkhart Truth after more than 600 people turned out in Middlebury for a marathon three-hour meeting. “The goal of this is, people want to speak.”

In Bloomington Wednesday night, U.S. Rep. Baron Hill appeared at North High School and attempted to dispel misinformation about H.R. 3200. “The proposal out there is not socialized medicine. It is not a government takeover,” Hill said to a crowd of over 800. “(There is) no rationing in this bill,” he said. “Insurance companies are rationing care.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Pence suggested the best move President Obama could make is to scrap all the bills and start over. “That would be the best thing he could do,” he said at Richmond’s Reid Hospital. “It would be wrong for the Democratic Congress to pass a partisan bill. The wild card in the equation is you, all of you and tens of thousands of Americans who came out in the month of August.”

A man who described himself as a Christian asked Pence if he could “imagine a compromise position where the government plays a role? I’d like to hear your response as a Christian.”

Pence said the issue is “fraught with moral issues.” He said he supported Medicare and significant increases. He suggested allowing insurance companies to sell over state lines, increasing Medicaid for people above the poverty level, and transferable tax credits that would amount to $1,000 for an individual, $2,000 for couples and $3,000 for families. “I’m not folding my arms and saying good luck there,” Pence said.

As for the Members of Congress who didn’t conduct town halls – Reps. Andre Carson, Pete Visclosky, Brad Ellsworth and Sens. Evan Bayh and Dick Lugar – my thought is, you can’t be afraid of the people.

The critical question at this point is what does it all mean and where do we go from here?

Much focus has centered on President Obama’s diving poll numbers and analyst Charlie Cook’s forecast that Democrats could lose 20 House seats in the 2010 elections. Historically, the party of the new president loses 24 seats in a first mid-term.

Barack Obama presided over one of the great presidential campaigns in history. He listened to this epic August debate and is recalibrating. He will address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday.

Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, told me in Elkhart last February that the president was content to let Congress hash out the details. This week, he told Politico, “We’re entering a new season. It’s time to synthesize and harmonize these strands and get this done. We’re confident that we can do that. But obviously it is a different phase. We’re going to approach it in a different way. The president is going to be very active.”

The much-debated H.R. 3200 will not be the bill that lands on Obama’s desk. There will be twists in the story line, and many changes to come, but the historic moment realized in the end is a better bet than business as usual.

The beautiful part about this exercise in democracy is that so many Hoosiers entered the public square and weighed in. Thus, 2008 and 2009 will likely be years when epic politics and policy are linked.

(The columnist publishes at Howey Politics Indiana intern Katie Coffin contributed to this column.)

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