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The Health Care Bill Is Political Suicide

The Health Care Bill Is Political Suicide

By Sean Trende - December 19, 2009

Health reform is shuffling toward its endgame, and even though the bill's popularity resembles George Bush's circa 2007, Democrats seem determined to push the bill through. Browse through certain liberal blogs, or listen to Democratic leadership speeches, and you'll read the same justification again and again: However bad passing this bill might be, politically speaking, not passing it would be much, much worse.

I've been skeptical of this line of argument for quite some time. This summer, I showed that Democrats from Republican-leaning districts who supported President Clinton's agenda fared significantly worse in the 1994 midterm election than those who did not.  It seems almost certain that an additional vote for Clinton's then-wildly-unpopular healthcare bill would not have helped these Democrats any; passing ClintonCare almost certainly would have made 1994 even worse for the Democrats.  Likewise, after taking tough votes on the stimlulus package and cap-and-trade, it seemed unlikely that a vote on the then-mildly-unpopular health care bill would help Congressional Democrats.

Nothing has changed my mind since then. Rather, as events have unfolded I've become increasingly convinced that there is little political upside for Democrats in passing this bill, and much, much downside. For one thing, the "failure is not an option" argument makes little sense at a very basic level. It's the equivalent of arguing that what the GOP really needed to do to save its majority in 2006 was to sign an immigration bill that deported illegal immigrants; maybe it should have pushed through private accounts for social security, just to show the country that the GOP was capable of “governing,” and to give the base something to get excited over. The problem is that the public doesn't want to see a party simply “governing” or pushing through major legislation. They want to see a party “governing well,” and pushing through major legislation that the public wants.

The 2009 elections showed that the public does not equate "governing well" with "moving the agenda to the left."  Democrats have convinced themselves that the 2009 elections somehow showed that the Democrats really need to push through more of Obama's agenda to win, much as some Republican partisans convinced themselves that the GOP lost in 1996 because it cut a deal with President Clinton over the government shutdown. As Kos wrote to his party the Wednesday following the elections, “[t]he choice is yours. Give us a reason to vote for you, or we sit home. And you aren't going to make up the margins with conservative voters. They already know exactly who they're voting for, and it ain't you.”

But the biggest problem in 2009 was not really that liberals didn't turn out to vote. The problem was that the Democrats lost Independents and moderates. Take Virginia. There was a substantial drop-off in Democratic performance from 2008 to 2009.  But the real change this year is how Independents voted (as was the case in 2006). Independents in Virginia voted 49%-48% for Obama in 2008, but gave Bob McDonnell a 66%-33% landslide win in 2009.

To put this a different way, if Creigh Deeds had run to the left and managed to increase Democratic turnout to 2008 levels, without changing the way Independents split, he would have closed the gap with McDonnell, but still would have lost by more than five points, 52.25%-46.5%. If, however, Deed had persuaded Independents to vote for him at the same level as they did in 2008 without increasing Democratic turnout, he would have fared better, losing by a slim 51%-48% margin. Indeed, this is exactly how Jim Webb won in 2006; even though his electorate had the rough composition of the 2009 electorate, he managed to take a 12-point win among Independents and win the election.

Democrats may object to this analysis on the grounds that many Republicans took to calling themselves Independents during the post-Bush years. But running the same experiment using liberal/moderate/conservative splits instead of partisan identification doesn't change the result. Deeds barely loses (losing 50.8%-47.9%) in an electorate with 2009's composition where he performs as well as Obama did among moderates. If he recreates the 2008 electorate, but doesn't improve his performance among moderates, he loses by a larger margin (53.5%-46.4%).

We see the same effect up I-95 in blue New Jersey. Recreating the 2008 electorate without changing voting patterns would have actually given Jon Corzine a narrow 51%-49% win over Chris Christie. But taking the 2009 electorate and having Independents vote as they did in 2008 would have expanded Corzine's win to a substantial 55%-44% clobbering of the former U.S. Attorney.

This illustrates another difficulty with the left's argument. Jon Corzine did exactly what liberals suggested Creigh Deeds should have done: He cleaved unto his President, and he still lost. New Jersey had a slightly smaller drop-off in Democratic participation than did Virginia (3 points versus 4 points), but the rightward swing among Independents was even more pronounced (21 points versus 16 points).  This suggests that the 2008 turnout was a phenomenon that owed more to Obama's highly personal candidacy than any particular set of domestic initiatives he may have been espousing.  It might simply be impossible for anyone not named "Obama" to recreate the Obama coalition.

Polling for the House of Representatives further demonstrates little upside for having vulnerable members vote for the health bill. If the best way for Democrats in swing-to-conservative leaning districts to keep their seats is to bet on the base turning out in record numbers, then we should see Democrats who are supportive of the President's agenda outperforming those who oppose it.

But consider Vic Snyder. Snyder represents an Arkansas district based in Little Rock, which went modestly for George W. Bush before going strongly for John McCain. Snyder has been a relatively loyal foot soldier for Obama, voting for the stimulus, cap and trade legislation, and the health care bill. According to a November PPP (D) poll, Snyder holds an upside-down approval rating, and barely leads a relatively unknown GOP opponent. Snyder still takes 80% of the Democratic vote in the district, while his opponent gets 83% of the Republican vote. The difference-maker? His opponent leads Snyder among Independents by a 15-point margin.

Or consider Dina Titus. The first-term representative, who defeated a GOP incumbent in 2008, has likewise supported almost all of Obama's agenda. She finds herself tied against a relatively unknown GOP opponent, receiving only 40% of the vote.  Pluralities in the district, where Democrats enjoy a sizable registration advantage, oppose the health reform bill.

Now consider Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. She opposed the health care bill and cap and trade legislation. Presumably, this should turn off her left-leaning supporters, and she should fare no better than Snyder or Titus. But another recent PPP (D) poll shows her actually in fairly good shape. As we might expect, her standing among Democrats is a tepid 63%-24% split, about 8 points lower than President Obama's. But she enjoys a 42%-47% split among Republicans – nearly three times Obama's approval rating in that group -- and a 41%-41% split among Independents. Because she's been able to win over Republicans and Independents in head-to-head matchups (picking up 24% of the former and 47% of the latter), she leads both of her Republican opponents by healthy margins.

This really should not surprise anyone. Almost by definition, representatives only win in red/swing districts by appealing to substantial numbers of Republicans and Independents. You just can't do it by appealing to the Democratic base. This has a disproportionate effect on Democrats, who choose to pack their most fervent supporters into a few heavily Democratic districts. This is why there are twice as many districts with PVIs of D+20 or greater than there are districts with PVIs of R+20 or greater, and why a healthy majority of districts – 239 – have PVIs leaning toward the Republicans.

If Democrats need to appeal to Independents and moderates to hold their majorities, then passing this bill is a terrible idea.  The most recent polling shows that 81% of Republicans and 69% of Independents oppose the healthcare plan (with 74% of Republicans and 57% of Independents strongly opposing it).  With majorities of Independents strongly opposed to the bill, it's really hard to imagine any boost in Democratic turnout from passing the plan being enough to surpass the ensuing backlash from Republicans and Independents.

It isn't even clear that there will be a boost in Democratic turnout.  The latest version of the Senate bill holds little appeal for progressives. As I noted on the blog, without a public option, this bill becomes a wet, sloppy kiss to the insurance industry. It doesn't even represent a substantial triumph for liberalism by significantly expanding government through taxing the wealthy; there are large new subsidies, but for the most part the subsidies are paid for by gouging Medicare and taxing union health benefits. It really reads like a bill a moderate Republican would propose; it is a slightly stronger version of RomneyCare at this point. In other words, the only remaining group that might have even arguably been excited to vote for Democrats on this bill is now at best lukewarm on it.

This bill may encourage a few Democratic policy wonks to run to the polls, but this trickle will be nothing compared to the flood of angry Republicans and Independents. And this is all analysis conducted before election ads begin to run telling voters about how the Democrats will jail them if they don't buy health insurance. To which the Democrats will respond “no, you see, it's only a big fine.”

I suspect that most of the left intuits this. That's why the other argument you'll see – and this is especially true of the Administration and the leadership – is that the Democrats should pass this bill because they have a chance to make history:  Do something the Democrats have wanted since the Truman Administration. President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid believe that if they pass this bill, regardless of what else happens to them, they'll have earned a place in the Democrats' Pantheon of Great Leaders. These Democrats see universal coverage as their Holy Grail (never mind that the bill actually leaves behind millions of uninsured), it's within reach, and they really don't care what sort of bill they have to pass to get it. They'll even let the press start describing them, with reason, as allies of Big Pharma to achieve the win.  The train is simply running out of control at this point, and all Pelosi can do is stand at the front and repeat increasingly out-of-touch talking points about the American people wanting them to enact this bill and standing up to the insurance industry.

I don't think they're close to finding their Grail.  I think the better analogy is probably that they're close to their Moby Dick. And we all know what happens to Captain Ahab once he finally harpoons his white whale.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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