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No, Obamacare Isn't an Existential Threat to Liberalism

No, Obamacare Isn't an Existential Threat to Liberalism

By Sean Trende - November 20, 2013

There has been an awful lot of speculation about the effect Obamacare's disastrous rollout will have on liberalism. Charles Krauthammer is one of the most prominent proponents of the idea that this could be liberalism's swan song, but it isn’t just conservatives who are espousing such beliefs. Pundits like Ron Brownstein, Frank Rich and Mark Shields have rolled out similar arguments.

I’ve said before that our press corps suffers from histrionic personality disorder, and this is but the latest example. Wasn’t it just weeks ago that we were told the government shutdown could cost Republicans the House? But elections and the ideological orientation of the country don’t turn on such immediate, short-term events. The arc of history is long. Both parties, and both ideologies, have plenty of wins ahead of them, and neither is likely to suffer a knockout blow.

Let’s start by observing that we’re barely 50 days into Obamacare’s launch. While the program is clearly in much graver political danger than was the case a month ago, it’s still unclear that the ship won’t eventually be righted. Maybe the so-called “young invincibles” will sign up in droves, or maybe they won’t and the program will go into a death spiral. We just don’t know yet.

But even if the Affordable Care Act does collapse, I’m not sure that the liberal project will be kneecapped, much less destroyed. Americans have very short memories, and the pendulum will swing back quickly if Republicans mess up their next opportunity to govern.

History is replete with examples of parties bouncing back from rather spectacular debacles in reasonably quick fashion. In 1888, Republicans were given clear, unified control of the government for the first time since 1874. Despite their narrow margins, they furiously attempted to enact their agenda, becoming known as the “billion-dollar Congress” for their spending and push for progressive legislation. Voters reacted violently, and in 1890 the GOP lost an astonishing 49 percent of its House caucus.

After the Democrats rolled into power in 1893 with Grover Cleveland winning the first large plurality in the popular vote since 1872, the Review of Reviews (a monthly journal) actually speculated that the Republican Party might be going extinct. The party’s positions on education funding and prohibition had turned off immigrants, while its supposedly reckless spending had damaged its credibility with austere businessmen.

Yet the Panic of 1893 and the William Jennings Bryan Democratic candidacy swung those groups back into the Republican camp (Bryan’s populist campaign in particular turned off white Catholic ethnics, who thought he seemed too much of a Protestant preacher). Republicans went on to win four straight presidential elections, and the progressive agenda that was hinted at in the late 1880s was mainstreamed during that time.

Or consider the aftermath of Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous second term. With the country suffering through a controversial war/highly unpopular peace, recession, terrorist campaign, and influenza pandemic, voters elected Warren Harding by 26 points (excluding third parties) -- to this day the largest point spread for any president in the popular vote. Democrats were nearly shut out of Northern state legislatures, and Republicans won over 300 House seats and 59 Senate seats (out of 96); Democrats lost every Senate race outside of the Old Confederacy that year.

This would have seemed to disqualify Democrats from public office for decades, yet in 1922, Republican scandal and a recession propelled Democrats to a 76-seat pickup in the House (within seven seats of the majority). Ten years later the country embarked upon a 20-year stretch of Democratic rule, behind an administration that based many of its policies upon those backed by Wilson.

Franklin Roosevelt’s government likewise shows how quick Americans are to forgive and forget. FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act was the capstone of the New Deal, the last piece of major legislation passed in FDR’s first 100 days. It effectively cartelized the American economy, and was a debacle. The Supreme Court arguably did Roosevelt a favor when it struck down the law in 1935; Congress was balking at reauthorizing it, both because of its unpopularity with business and because of the wave of unionization that followed.

Yet this didn’t kill liberalism. Congress sent FDR the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act), a more far-reaching labor reform bill, in July of that year. A month later, FDR signed the Social Security Act, and shortly thereafter the Revenue Act, which raised inheritance and gift taxes. None of the other major New Deal programs were repealed -- indeed the Agricultural Adjustment Act was renewed after the Supreme Court initially struck it down -- and liberals were able to push through overtime and minimum-wage legislation before overreach and a recession brought an effective end to the New Deal.

The 1964 elections and Watergate scandal that culminated in 1974 were supposed to have doomed the Republican Party and conservatism -- it sunk to such depths in the mid-’70s that the Minnesota Republican Party felt compelled to change its name to “Independent Republicans” -- yet in 1980 both the party and movement were resurgent. Vietnam supposedly doomed foreign policy hawkishness, yet Ronald Reagan represented the triumph of an aggressive foreign policy. By 1986 tax rates had dropped to 28 percent. Walter Mondale’s presidential run in 1984 put an end to campaigning on tax hikes, until Bill Clinton did so in 1992. The Republican debacles of 2006 and 2008 were supposedly the conservative coalition’s dying breath, yet the 2010 elections were the biggest conservative victory since the 1940s.

Even the last failed attempt at health care reform, in the early 1990s, didn’t actually spell the end of reform efforts for the next two decades, as many suggest. It just proceeded incrementally, with some fairly significant steps. Congress in 1996 passed the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill, which established health insurance portability. The following year, Republicans helped to establish the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which today provides health care for almost 8 million children. In 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, Congress was consumed with a debate over the Patient’s Bill of Rights, with the only major disagreement involving whether plaintiffs should be able to collect punitive damages while suing their HMO.

The Iraq War was supposed to spell the end of toppling Middle Eastern dictatorships in the hopes that democracies would spring up, and yet the U.S. played a role in toppling two under Bush’s successor and nearly toppled a third.

This isn’t to say that a collapse of Obamacare would be without consequences. It would probably ruin the Democrats’ chances in 2014, perhaps leading to truly significant Republican gains in the Senate. Given that that chamber tends to be a natural Republican gerrymander, it would probably take Democrats some time to recover. But also given the current makeup of the House, further liberal legislation was likely going to have to wait for quite some time anyway.

And even if Obamacare does collapse, the most liberal aspects of the American health care system -- Medicare and Medicaid -- will still be around. Democrats have already been pretty straightforward about what their “Plan B” will be: Medicare/Medicaid for all. Both programs are still very popular, and the Democratic standard-bearer in 2016 would almost certainly campaign on expanding them, perhaps to those over 55 for Medicare and under 25 for Medicaid. I’m not sure that would be a losing issue, even with an Obamacare collapse. In 10 years, I think it’d be a winner.

I’ve written along these lines dozens of times regarding various attempts by commentators to bury conservatism or the Republican Party. But it is no less true of liberalism and the Democratic Party. The American electorate is not intensely ideological, and is more motivated by things such as the state of the economy, whether there is peace abroad (or whether we’re winning a war), and whether the president is suffering from a major scandal. Obamacare’s collapse wouldn’t be a good thing for liberalism. It wouldn’t even be neutral. But it wouldn’t be the end of the liberal ideology, either. 

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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