Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"No No!"

So surely enough, Mr. Brown became MA's first Republican Senator in over 30 years and its first Republican member of Congress in over a decade, and surely enough, liberal commentators attempted to spin this as a signal that Democrats... really need to pass healthcare. Because, you see, the reason that Martha Coakley lost, besides that she dissed the Red Sox (come on now, how many voters do you really think would otherwise like Senate Democrats to maintain a 60 seat majority but just couldn't bring themselves to vote for someone who doesn't know that Curt Schilling pitched for the Red Sox?), is that Democrats have taken too long to get healthcare done, can't govern. So they sensibly elected someone who doesn't want to get healthcare done. So don't misinterpret the results of this election, nervous House Democrats - if healthcare dies, Democrats die. So say Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Ezra Klein, the folks at The New Republic, etc. Well Maddow and Olbermann are sub-literate, in spite of Maddow's being a Rhodes Scholar in a past life, so we can forget them. But some pretty smart people take this view, including, it would seem, the folks at the White House, who aren't backing down, and more usefully for my purposes, a couple of professors of political science from Yale and Georgetown who put forth this argument in the Washington Post this afternoon. According to Professors Hacker and Hopkins:

[Congressional Democrats] should ask themselves: Would they rather defend a successful law or an unsuccessful year-long legislative imbroglio? As was true after the Clinton health plan went down in flames in 1994, failing to pass health-care reform would cripple public perceptions of the Democrats' ability to govern. And as was true in 1994, the Democrats most endangered would be moderates, not liberals. The Blue Dogs may be hearing the loudest calls to turn tail. But they stand to lose the most if the governing reputation of their party goes down with reform.

Would they rather defend a successful law or an unsuccessful year-long legislative imbroglio? Hmm. Either way, of course, they're going have to defend the year-long imbroglio and the fact that they spent a year on healthcare reform that won't go into effect for years while unemployment was rising to 10%. So the question is really would they rather defend a successful law + imbroglio or just defend the imbroglio and their choice to quit. That said, the force of this argument is that "successful" laws are more popular than failures to make laws. And in a vacuum, I'd agree that voters would probably rather see Congress doing stuff than failing to do stuff, although even there I'm not so sure, because what was the last time you've seen Congress get anything done that anyone was particularly happy about? Voters are perhaps most content when Congress simply doesn't do anything. But yes, failure never looks good.

However, a "successful" law only trumps a failure to get a bill through if voters actually believe the content of the law is worthy of the name success. Right now you have an electorate which in large part believes, probably delusionally, that the healthcare reform being proposed is the equivalent of going around harpooning dolphins. Or, if they don't believe that, they think it's a great mystery (a thousand pages long, so complex and impenetrable!) that will probably make their lives worse. Or they're cranky liberals who think it should be more ambitious, that the current package is a big corporatist giveaway to insurance companies. Why a politician would want to go around bragging of his success in spending a year of Congress's valuable time passing a measure that many of his voters believe is the equivalent of going around harpooning dolphins, and many of his supporters think isn't nearly good enough, I do not know. It would strike me that a better message would be to say, "for some strange reason I thought it would be best for this nation if we started slaughtering dolphins, but then I got a lot of mail from my constituents to the contrary, and I notice that members of my party - the one that's into killing dolphins - have started losing elections in states where they shouldn't, so obviously my party isn't very popular at the moment and it probably has something to do with the dolphin-killing legislation that we've been spending the past 8 months doing nothing but talking about and attempting to get through. I now realize that at the very least, we were wrong to focus on dolphin-killing at a time when people are losing their jobs, and that we probably failed to explain how awesome and great for our economy dolphin-killing really is, and that in fact the legislation we were proposing did not actually, in any way, propose to actually kill dolphins. Your loyal Congressman would never, ever support killing dolphins. But it's too late now to convince you of that, so sorry for spending all this time on the dolphin issue; I now plan to focus my efforts on things more pressing/things you actually want." Or if he's insane he could hope that, once the legislation that has falsely been labeled as dolphin-killing legislation gets passed, people will suddenly take a new view of the whole thing, instead of getting much angrier than they are now once what they imagine to be a dolphin-killing measure actually becomes law.

Hacker and Hopkins then point out that Democrats failed to pass healthcare reform in 1994, and look, they got killed because people thought they couldn't govern. I'd really expect better from a couple of presumably pretty bright professors in the subject. Not to repeat myself, but this is like saying that it was sunny on Election Day in 1994, so Obama better go and secretly seed the clouds if he wants to retain his congressional majorities. This is also like saying that the reason Republicans lost in 2006 is because they failed to reform/destroy Social Security. If only they had succeeded, then the voters would have loved them so. No no. In that scenario, the Republican Party wouldn't have thrived, it would have practically ceased to exist. The reality is that a lot of things happened from 1993 to 1994; in fact, a lot of things happened from 1993 to 1994 that proved Congressional Democrats could govern. They passed a successful tax hike, they passed a successful trade agreement that tons of people in their own party hated, they passed successful gun control laws, they passed a successful crime bill. They actually got an enormous amount of stuff done. (Unfortunately for them most of it was stuff the median voter didn't like.) The one thing they didn't get done was massively unpopular. And the reason voters kicked Democrats out was because they failed to pass the massively unpopular item on their agenda? I don't think so.

Finally, Hacker and Hopkins argue, partly towards the claim that the failure of health reform killed the Democrats in 1994, partly to warn moderate Democrats that the effects of killing health reform would be disproportionately visited on them, that moderate Democrats went down the hardest in 1994. Which just goes to show, I suppose, that voters in 1994 really were punishing the Democrats who caused health reform to fail, not the ones who were pushing for it in the first place. But that's backwards. If you're a liberal Democrat, you usually come from a safely Democratic district. Otherwise you couldn't get away with being a liberal Democrat. If you're a moderate Democrat, you're more likely to come from a non-safe district. So yes, anytime a party does something drastically unpopular, the ones who get punished are, paradoxically enough, the moderates who weren't necessarily that in favor of it. That's why all the extremely conservative Republicans haven't gone anywhere and why the moderate Republican members of Congress are currently a virtually extinct species. They got blamed by their moderate constituents for what their extremist colleagues pushed through, because when it comes down to it, votes don't know jack shit about what their individual representative is for. They just know his party affiliation and a little about what his party has been up to. So of course the moderate Democrats have the most to fear from the passage of unpopular legislation, which is exactly why they should work to ensure that health reform never gets passed and why they should make a big public fuss of apologizing for having fucked up.

Finally, as for Obama and the leadership, they currently find themselves in the worst of all political worlds. The second Brown won, Democratic members of Congress (wisely) started panicking and saying maybe they should try reforming healthcare some other time, and the White House and the leadership, which hasn't seemed to have given this situation a great deal of thought, said they still plan to somehow get reform through. So a mere 24 hours after election night, it's already too late for the White House to get out in front of this and quit. If they did now, it would just look like face-saving and flip-flopping. So the rank and file members get to claim the "I listened to the people" high ground, while the White House and leaders, at best, get to claim the "we're getting bullied by our members and plan to quit" low ground, and at worst, are going to get publicly beaten by members of their own party. At that point, Democrats do begin to look like a party that doesn't have its shit together. Unilaterally quitting, however, would not have that effect. But that may be off the table - though perhaps Obama could pull a dramatic quit in next week's State of the Union.

Of course, this all ignores the question of whether healthcare reform is actually a good thing. Maybe it is and maybe Congressional Democrats have a moral obligation to give us the gift of healthcare reform, even though we don't seem to want it, and go down to defeat for having done so. Years later we'll thank them. Perhaps. The uninsured, at least, would certainly be grateful. My only issue is that the obvious desire of so many left-leaning analysts to get health reform done has led them to construct this bullshit political analysis that claims that voters reward politicians for doing really unpopular things, and punish them for failing to do unpopular things. And this strain of analysis of 1994 and the costs and benefits of failing to pass unpopular legislation in general could ultimately take us to a place where voters have no check on unpopular legislation pushed by the White House - because these cheerleaders will always be there to assure Congress that things will be even worse politically if they don't get something done. The whole point of representative democracy is voided if the representatives come to believe that passage of any bill is always better for them politically than failure of any bill.

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