There’s a lively debate going on in the blogosphere and the press about whether Democrats would be better off passing or not passing a health care bill.
Some liberals claim that Democrats would be better off passing a bill, any bill, even if it’s unpopular with the general electorate. The idea is to energize the Democratic base, currently demoralized by the prospects of failure. Current polls show Democrats far less enthusiastic and far less likely to vote — passing a law might change that.
Others, mostly conservatives but also some liberals speaking privately, figure that Democrats would be better off letting the issue drop. Back in January, Barack Obama said he would emphasize "jobs, jobs, jobs," currently a higher priority for voters than health care. By November, these folks hope voters will have forgotten about health care and may be impressed by Democratic economic policies.
I’m inclined to think both sides are wrong. They both assume that there exists some optimum course that will produce happy results. But sometimes in politics there is no course that leads to success. Disaster lies ahead whatever you do.
In this view, the Democrats’ mistake was making government-directed health care a priority in the first place. They assumed that economic distress would make Americans more amenable to big government programs. They felt history calling: Harry Truman pushed for national health insurance in 1945, and Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare in 1965 — now it was time to go further.
Temptation was placed in their way in the form of big congressional majorities. Democrats had a 257-178 majority in the House after the 2008 election, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had shown her capacity to squeeze out a majority time and again.
Democrats came out of the 2008 election with 58 senators, got a 59th when Arlen Specter switched parties in April 2009 and got the 60th when Al Franken was sworn in in July. A filibuster-proof majority at last!
But just after Franken was sworn in, polls started showing pluralities or majorities against the Democrats’ health care proposals. Town hall meetings in August demonstrated that opponents were far more enthusiastic than supporters. Opinion has only grown more negative as Barack Obama has made one speech after another in support of (usually unspecified) Democratic proposals.
This made passing legislation very much harder. The decisions Democrats made on health care policy in early 2009 ruled out the possibility of significant Republican support. You can pass popular legislation on party-line votes, and you usually get some support from the other side, even if unsolicited. This was the case on Medicare in 1965, for example.
But it’s hard to pass unpopular legislation on party-line votes. Take the example of the Troubled Asset Relief Program in fall 2008. Bailing out banks was obviously not going to be popular (the 2008 exit poll shows voters opposed by 56 percent to 39 percent). It was easy to imagine opponents running negative ads in the next campaign. TARP was passed, after one misfire in the House, by bipartisan coalitions of members of both parties with safe seats. Members of both parties with vulnerable seats, with only a few exceptions, were left to protect themselves by voting against it.
In fall 2009, Democrats could have pivoted on health care to craft a popular bill or a watered-down unpopular bill to be passed by a bipartisan safe-seat coalition. Instead, they plunged ahead and rammed through unpopular bills on party-line votes.
Pelosi got a 220-215 margin in the House in November after accepting an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak that banned funding of abortions.
In the Senate in December, Majority Leader Harry Reid predictably had to pay a high price — the Cornhusker kickback and the Louisiana purchase — for the 59th and 60th votes. That’s always the case when you need 60 out of 60.
Scott Brown’s election in January in Massachusetts deprived Reid of his 60th vote. The only way forward for the Democrats is for the House to pass the Senate bill and then trust the Senate to fix it through the reconciliation process. Pelosi has had six weeks to get the votes for that and hasn’t done so yet.
It’s beginning to look like the goal of health care legislation was a bridge too far. There’s a reason it’s hard to pass unpopular legislation on party-line votes. It’s not the Senate rules. It’s called democracy.