WASHINGTON -- Is it possible to hear the sound of hands wringing? Or of souls agonizing? Or of ironies clanging?
I think you can. I think that if you listen carefully you can hear all three this month in the capital -- and I'm not talking about Republicans worrying whether they might be endangered in the Obama era, or about conservatives wrestling with whether it is prudent for insurgents to challenge establishment Republicans, or about GOP leaders wondering if the party has anybody who might run a credible candidacy against an incumbent president whose aura of destiny has suddenly been transformed into a sense of vulnerability.
No, the wringing, the agonizing and the clanging this time come clearly from the left side of the political spectrum -- from Democrats who had hoped to prevail in a party-line vote before Christmas on a health-care overhaul that satisfies no one except the Obama administration, which apparently has calculated that its survival requires the president to sign legislation that will allow him to say that Washington has remodeled the health-care system even if imperfectly and incompletely.
The cries of despair and the wails of woe aren't about the likelihood of an income-tax surcharge on the very wealthy or the unlikelihood of a public option. The trouble instead is the re-emergence of an issue that Democrats, in their post-modern sophistication, thought was yesterday's problem, something so George W. Bush administration:
Abortion. It's back.
There's nothing like a moral imperative to derail another moral imperative. In this case it's everyone's moral imperative (those who oppose abortion rights do so with the same authentic moral fervor as those who support them) against everyone's other moral imperative (those who believe decent health care is a human right versus those who believe it is no such thing).
Here's the problem: The House health-care bill barely passed last weekend. Nobody wants to overhaul one-sixth of the nation's economy on a five-vote margin. And in the course of winning that slender victory, the House grafted onto the bill a provision that would prohibit public health-insurance plans from underwriting abortions and would ban private insurance plans from paying for abortions for members who have accepted public subsidies. That's a big step from current prohibitions on public-supported abortions. The amendment attracted the support of about a quarter of the Democratic caucus. And it contaminated the bill for about half, maybe three-quarters, of the rest of the Democrats.
Wow. You don't get a mess that big every day. So now the Democrats have a real problem, one in several dimensions.
"This was a threat that was always there," said John Podesta, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff and Mr. Obama's transition director, in a conversation last week, "but when it finally appeared one thing was clear: This is trouble."
This trouble ends the cease-fire on abortion, which President Barack Obama had fostered and which provided an unusual moment of silence in an unusually noisy and contentious age. The provision splits the Democratic Party. It divides the health-care coalition, which is pretty much the same as the Democratic Party in the Senate, except for two words: Olympia Snowe. Sen. Snowe, a Republican, is a known, even fervent supporter of abortion rights. This puts her in a political pickle.
It also raises some important broader issues, about compromise and contamination. Did the Democrats compromise too much? Did they compromise too much after having compromised too little? Can practical politicians compromise on moral issues? Has abortion fatally contaminated health-care reform? How do pragmatists -- or moralists, for that matter -- weigh what they regard as a moral good against what they believe is a moral evil? Can there be a compromise on issues in which people on both sides are on record as saying there can be no compromise?
And also: In an age when everything can be quantified, how do you measure the greatest good for the greatest number of people?
So in an instant -- in the instant when Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, a Democrat heretofore unknown beyond Capitol Hill and Michigan's wild, remote Upper Peninsula, offered his amendment of agony -- health care became an even more complex issue than it had been 10 days ago. No matter that Mr. Obama has taken to argue that what is at issue is a health-care bill, not an abortion bill.
"I was reasonably confident we could remain abortion-neutral in the health-care fight, but this has created problems -- and an imbalance that will be very difficult to overcome," former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, an informal health-care adviser to the president, said in an interview last week. "When we're dealing with these kinds of margins in the Congress, it's a significant barrier."
The fight of course now moves to the Senate, which will take its own sweet time, which in turn will have the effect of letting the disputants marinate in their own discomfort.
The abortion furies have been loosed, which means we will hear a lot of people marshalling military metaphors, making threats, mobilizing e-mail, telephone and antisocial-media campaigns, all the while raking in a lot of money. Much of this will be theater. But much of it will be dead-serious politicking, about the sorts of issues that should be the preoccupation of politics, which is to say important moral choices, with our growing deficit and clashing definitions of justice at stake.
The battle lines are drawn. Independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut won't support health-care legislation with a public option. Sen. Snowe likely won't support a bill with abortion restrictions.
There goes the filibuster-proof Senate, thanks to the gentleman from New Haven. There goes the patina of bipartisanship that the distinguished gentlelady from Auburn, Maine, might have provided. There goes the easy glide into the winter holidays and the sense of glorious revolution the Obama team has craved since the Iowa caucuses. There, too, goes the presidential honeymoon, and perhaps much more.
David M. Shribman is the executive editor of the Post-Gazette ( email@example.com , 412 263-1890).