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Nonenties Incorporated

I’m still not too sure what we’re supposed to take away from the victory of a small-time Republican state senator from Massachusetts whom practically nobody had ever heard of over a pallid Martha Coakley, who wasn’t exactly a "Meet the Press" regular. She was, to coin a phrase, no Ted Kennedy, whose shoes she felt destined to fill.

Now the pundits are telling us that Martha Coakley's defeat is a sure sign that Barack Obama (who was fool enough to use his presidential muscle—abs and all—to throw the Democratic dud a leaky life-preserver at the last second) is even weaker than she is. And as for Obama’s gestating offspring, a national health care plan: That’s stillborn.

The ringing angry-headmaster phrases of John McCain, speaking from the floor of the Senate, as he shook his little fist (“The American people have spoken! The people of Massachusetts have spoken for the rest of the country!”), provoke a certain amount of awe in the listener.

Since when does Sen. McCain, or indeed any conservative Republican, put a whole lot of faith in the people of Massachusetts, much less believe them to be spokesmen for “the rest of the country”? Why should a proposed national health plan be stopped? Because a state attorney general ran a dumb campaign?

And while we’re on the subject of taking away the wrong lessons from defeat, what’s with Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton pal who’s clearly still rankling since losing last year’s bid to be on the Democratic gubernatorial of Virginia? “This is a giant wakeup call,” McAuliffe said late last week. “We have to keep our focus on job creation.”

And that means—no health care plan? The American executive function is so hopelessly compromised that we can’t accomplish two goals? Obama, even now that he’s stripped of a 60th vote in the Senate that would block procedural obstacles, can’t find his away through that maze?

“What is going on in America?” an astonished Roman friend, who teaches Latin and English, inquired last week. “Why the fuss over national health care—in my opinion everyone needs to be insured.”

In Italy, that’s the law. Last year, this teacher explained, she slipped on a wet street near the Colosseum, breaking her arm in several places. The hospital emergency room, the trips to the doctor, the months of physical therapy: They were all paid for. She never saw a bill.

About a month ago, I spoke to a more expert source on the same subject: She’s an orthopedist at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, and she was trying to figure out how to get big donors to contribute to her unit.

I told her that there must be lots of grateful parents with a good deal of money who would be happy to donate.

“That’s the problem,” she said. “If your kid has the kind of bad bone diseases I deal with day in, day out, you don’t have any money anymore. You’re wiped out.”

In the early days of the Women’s Movement, those wives who believed a solvent husband was all that was needed to achieve a pleasant existence received a direct and dire warning: “You’re only one man away from welfare.”

One could say much the same thing about the components of American health care these days: The insurance companies that have refused to cover “pre-existing conditions”—or, after years of joyfully cashing premiums—drop those already insured on absurd pretexts the second they get seriously sick; the doctors who refuse to accept any insurance; the hospitals whose first question on your arrival at the emergency room: And how are you going to pay for this?

So all too often I keep thinking: Unless we get a decent health care plan, we’re all—all of us in the United States—only one chronic illness away from welfare. And when we finally come to our senses, the sad fate of Martha Coakley isn’t going to jinx it for us.

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