National Review‘s Jim Geraghty goes contrarian today – which in and of itself is no crime – to explain why he believes the falling popularity of health care “reform” may not be enough to sink it – and could even, in fact, harden Democrats’ resolve to pass it.
Many congressional Democrats, told that passage of the sweeping health-care legislation will cost them their seats, may find the choice a harder decision than many observers think. Yes, no one should doubt a politician’s instinct for self-preservation. But it’s quite possible that long-serving Democrats might want to enact a sweeping social change instead of taking the safe route.
. . .
Even if a member of Congress found the power and status tough to relinquish, a politically risky vote might still be worth the risk. A House seat lost in 2010 can be won back in some other cycle. Among the Democratic senators, only 18 are up in 2010.
Democratic opportunities to achieve long-desired legislative goals are much rarer. With the early political outlook for 2010 favoring Republicans, and a corresponding slow, steady decline in Obama’s numbers, Democrats will probably never get a better chance to enact agenda items than now.
While the argument sounds compelling, it is not borne out by history – at all.
Throughout the two centuries and change of the Republic’s existence, dramatic and seemingly irreversible changes have needed one of two important requirements (usually both) - overwhelming political domination by one party or broad agreement among the major parties. Anything else tends to vanish over time. One of the worst facets of amnesia in American history centers around how much Republican support there was for FDR’s New Deal. In fact, Republicans had been the party of big government before 1933 – so much so that the two elected officials most closely presumed to be closet Communists in the 1940s (Vice President Henry Wallace and Congressman Vito Mercantino) began their political careers as Republicans. A generation later, the Democrats used huge majorities from the 1964 election (bigger than what they have now) to enact Medicare and Medicaid – which no Republican candidate for President ever opposed at the time or since.
By contrast, today, the Republican Party is almost universally opposed to the sweeping health care reform Geraghty mentions here. The political cost is far higher today than it was in 1965 or 1933. True, that may not matter to a number of Congressional Democrats, but recently elected ones will certainly pause. Geraghty’s contrary example (David Wu) is actually a poor one – as Wu has been in Congress for over a decade and his district last went Republican in 1972.
Geraghty also argues that with something this big, the Democrats might be willing to forgo a temporary majority to ensure a permanent policy.
If you asked House Democrats what they most wanted to leave as their legacy in public office, it’s a good bet that a healthy number would offer a variation of “a government-managed health-care plan that is available to every American citizen.” Some would classify it as “single payer,” others would want the “public option,” but they all add up to a massive new entitlement, in which Americans depend upon the federal government for their health care. Conservatives have dreaded it; looking around the globe, they know that once created, these programs are just about politically impossible to repeal.
That assertion (I added the emphasis) is one shared by most Americans, let alone conservatives. The problem is that it is nothing more than an assertion. The two nations that adopted the stringent “single-payer” system (Canada and the UK) did so under consensus, not confrontation. In Britain, Labor campaigned on forming the National Health Services in 1945; the result (their highest percentage of the popular vote in history) convinced Winston Churchill (the defeated PM in ’45 and Conservative leader for another decade hence) not to oppose it (in fact, Churchill kept the NHS going when he took power in 1951). Meanwhile, the Liberal-New Democrat (center-left and hard-left, respectively) coalition that transitioned Canada to single-payer did so with the support of the center-right opposition (the Progressive Conservatives). What these nations share was a lack of controversy surrounding socialized medicine.
Even the historical example Geraghty cites (through Mickey Kaus) is flawed. Contrary to the distortions from a decade hence, the 1998 elections were believed at the time to have killed the impeachment impulse. House Republicans were practically desperate to end the matter quietly. It was only when Clinton badly overplayed his hand after Election Day that angry moderate Republicans in Congress felt compelled to help their stunned conservative allies send the articles to the Senate. Two years later, in the first chance the voters had to send the Republicans packing for the supposedly unpopular post-midterm-election impeachment, the House GOP lost one seat from their January 1999 numbers, and preserved their majority for another half-dozen years.
Surprisingly, Geraghty does not refer to 1994, the last time the Democrats attempted such far-reaching “reform” in health care. Their majorities in Congress were nearly as large, and there was just as much concern among vulnerable Democrats (in fact, much more concern by mid-1994) as now (in fact, the Senate was presumed to be falling to the Republicans sometime in September), but the Democrats still weren’t willing to put legacy over power.
In fact, what 1994 should have taught everyone is that unpopular reform will not pass. For every politician ready to fall on his sword for principle, there are at least half a dozen who see discretion as the better part of valor. This and next year will, I suspect, be no different.