Monday, January 18, 2010

What Democrats Should Do (If They Care To Win Elections)

I don't know who reads what I say about politics, but I just had to make a couple points. The polls all say that tomorrow Massachusetts will elect its first Republican Senator since 1972. The last time Massachusetts went for a Republican in any national election, it did so for Reagan in 1984, in a year in which Reagan only failed to carry his opponent's home state and the District of Columbia. It's true that Massachusetts has had a lot of Republican governors in recent years, but when it comes to national politics, no one can deny that MA's a very liberal state. Of course, liberal commentators will try to palm off this remarkable defeat on the crappiness of their party's candidate, her patrician affect and the fact that she barely tried. But, while she may have ran a terrible race, that doesn't explain away her losing a state that Obama carried by 26 points just 14 months ago. A bad campaign, or an uncharismatic candidate, can only have so much effect on an electorate's underlying partisan breakdown. Otherwise, John Kerry (who has a hell of a patrician affect himself) wouldn't be Massachusetts's other Senator. The fact that voters in MA understand that by electing Brown, they're depriving the Dems of their crucial 60th vote, only underscores that this election is largely about a rejection of Democratic policies and not just a matter of purely personal discontent with Martha Coakley. (Also the fact that Brown's whole campaign has been about promising to go to Washington and defeat health reform.)

Given, then, that one of our nation's most liberal states is poised to show at the polls that even it doesn't like the Obama health package, what should Democrats do? They could ram the bill through even with only 59 votes in the Senate, simply by getting the House to adopt the Senate bill that's already been passed unchanged. A lot of House Democrats aren't crazy about the Senate bill, but suppose that they're willing to take the Senate's version of health reform over none. Should they do so as a matter of politics? Of course not. Why would a House Democrat from a toss-up seat vote for a bill that even Massachusetts doesn't like? The logic seems straightforward enough.

However, the reasoning behind voting against a bill that consistently polls awfully would also seem simple enough, and yet Democrats have been willing to vote for health reform so far. How come? The answer is that they're relying on a tragically inaccurate misreading of recent political history. The reason, the argument for voting for health reform goes, the Democrats lost the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years is because they failed to get healthcare passed. Because Hillarycare went down in flames, the voters rejected the Democrats for failing... by bringing in the minority party that helped kill Hillarycare.

(Why exactly was a First Lady that had never held elective office put in charge of healthcare anyway?)

As should be obvious, this analysis of 1994 makes no sense; if voters were mad at the Democrats for failing to get health reform done, why would they punish them by electing reform's opponents? Does anyone really believe that had Hillarycare been passed, the Democrats would have held on to Congress? Isn't a much more credible analysis that Hillarycare failed to pass because it was so unpopular and that voters then punished Democrats, in part, for attempting the thing in the first place? Yes, but it's even simpler than that. A lot of the reasons the Democrats lost in 1994 were non health-related. In 1993, the Democrats raised taxes before we had gotten out of the recession. The hikes were so unpopular that Gore had to break a tie in the Senate and the bill passed by just one vote in the House. Clinton and the congressional Democrats also did other unpopular things, like passing gun control and NAFTA, the free trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that was supposedly going to suck millions of American jobs away. And yes, they also failed to pass a very unpopular health reform bill. Had they succeeded, they could have lost worse.

Because, however, the Democratic Party's been taken over by ideologues, or at least, people who actually believe in things (unlike Clinton, who arguably became - see welfare reform - our most conservative President since Hoover once he saw that voters didn't want him to govern as a liberal), the party, conned by health reform wonks masquerading as political analysts, has bought into this purely imaginary reading of history, one which says that they're better off passing a really unpopular bill than not passing one, because if they didn't pass anything 1994 would happen all over again. (Never mind that it's not even as if the poor ignorant masses will quickly see the benefits of reform once it's through; for the most part they come several years down the road.) And so they intend to go and commit political suicide. Or at least most of them do; surely a few House Democrats will understand the significance of the results in MA and peel off, citing irreconcilable differences between the House bill and Senate bill, at which point the bill in its present form will die. But instead of allowing reform to die in a chaotic process where a handful of no-name Texan Democrats come to their senses and kill healthcare, which would make Obama and the Democratic leadership look like losers, why not manage the fallout? How brilliant would it be for Obama to come out and acknowledge that he was wrong, that he wasn't elected to reshape the health insurance market? The speech practically writes itself. I listened to you, the American people, he'd say, and you don't want this. Partly it's my fault; I did a horrible job of explaining what reform entails. I also failed to take into account how happy a lot of you are with the system as it exists currently, I made too many backroom deals with drug and insurance companies to get this all done, and I took my eye off the all-important jobs ball. I'm asking Harry Reid and Pelosi to withdraw this bill and look to passing a second stimulus. Then in November they run on the economy; it still sucks, they'd say, but the GOP got us here, we arrested the decline, and now we're starting to see recovery. Fortunately for Obama, he hasn't actually really done much, and very little that people don't like - nothing equivalent to NAFTA or raising taxes. He can still do okay in 2010 so long as he kills his most unpopular policy proposal.

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