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By Jay Cost

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Pinochle and the Politics of Health Care

This weekend my wife and I went to my in-laws to play pinochle. I play on my mother-in-law's team, and after she pulled double aces, we decided to call it a night. As it usually does, the conversation turned to politics, and then to the health care debate.

Both of my in-laws are swing voters. They were skeptical of Obama last year, but finally voted for him after the financial collapse in September, 2008. "Time for a change," they explained to my wife. So, I was interested in their views. They expressed great skepticism of the reform efforts, and freely admitted that they don't know what's in these bills. "Nobody knows what's in them!" my father-in-law said emphatically at one point. Health care is a major issue for them, but neither of them seemed to have faith that the Democratic offerings would solve any of the nation's health care problems, about which they know a great deal.

This got me thinking, not only about the health care debate - but also the ebbs-and-flow of electoral politics. Partisans on both sides like to make much of the last election that favored them, while ignoring the others that didn't favor them. For many Democrats, 2008 was the definitive election. 2004? An outlier, an aberration, something to be cast aside in the Age of Obama. Just as many Republicans made the same mistake in 2004, happily overlooking returns from 1992 through 2000 when the Democratic presidential candidates won more votes than the Republicans.

But if we take all of those results seriously, how can we make sense of them? Part of it, surely, is that the electorate favors the incumbent party when times are good, and punishes it when times are bad. But I don't think that accounts for everything. Both parties offer a whole menu of policy proposals, and only some of them relate to the management of the economy or issues of war and peace. The country swings back and forth because there are a host of voters - folks like my in-laws - who can at least tolerate the policies of both sides. Why?

The following hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis. But I'll offer it because I think it is intuitively plausible, and hopefully it can generate some good discussion. The Republican Party has historically been, and remains today, the party of business. The Democratic Party has long been the party of those whose interests are not aligned with business - poor farmers in the 19th century, labor unions in the 20th, immigrants, and so on. Today the Democratic Party is aligned with an expansive government, and the Republican Party is not. These attitudes toward government have not been written in stone - instead they have varied according to the needs of the parties' core constituencies. In the 19th century, business generally wanted tariffs - expansive, taxing government! - so the GOP pushed for steep tariffs. Today, business generally likes low taxes, and so the GOP is a low tax party. A similar transformation happened with the Democrats. In his 1832 campaign against Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic President, demagogued the Bank of the United States, the symbol of intrusive federal government in the early Republic. Yet after the Democrats embraced the idea that the government could be mobilized to support social welfare, it began to advocate a more expansive role for the feds.

This has resulted in the fundamental political divide of the day: business or government. This is an oversimplification in some respects, but I would maintain that a choice between the two parties is often a choice between which entity you distrust more at the time of the election: big business or big government. Perhaps this helps explain the peculiar American tradition of swing voting.

My in-laws are a good case in point. They don't like big business. They think big business is happy to sacrifice a fair wage for profit, and that the government needs to do what it takes to rein it in. They often remark negatively upon the massive bonuses the Wall Street execs have pulled in while average Americans have taken it on the chin. They often criticize Wal-Mart for its failure to provide health care for many of their employees. But they also don't care much for big government, either! They don't view the government as being particularly effective or efficient, and they do not want its role in their health care to increase. They don't see the Congress or the President representing the interests of the people very well, so they aren't terribly thrilled with the big government proposals that these branches have produced.

The Democrats are stuck in a rut because of this health care debate, even after the back-to-back thumpings they delivered to the GOP. Maybe this is why. After all, a vote against the business party is not necessarily a vote for the policies of the government party. The public can want the government to stop letting business interfere in their affairs without wanting the government to start interfering! They can - and do - distrust both big business and big government. I don't think the Democrats - or at least a lot of their leaders who run the show in Washington, D.C. these days - really thought of it that way when they were formulating their legislative agenda last winter. Maybe that is what has caused them to lose so much political momentum so quickly.

Maybe not. I'll say this, though: if the Democrats keep on the path they're on, I expect my in-laws to swing back the other way next time around.

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-Jay Cost