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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Political Calculations For Democrats On Health Reform

This item is a guest post from Michael A. Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of “Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Campaign Speeches of the 20th Century and How They Shaped Modern America.”
Earlier this week the New York Times offered a bewildering story about the current state of political thought about health care among House Democrats.
First comes word that Nancy Pelosi wants to raise the possible surtax on wealthy Americans to $500,000 for individuals and $1 million for joint filers, “so the new levy could be described as a tax on millionaires.”
Next come some reasons why the millionaire’s tax may not see the light of day:

The Senate, however, has shown little interest in such a tax to pay for the legislation. And House Democrats, especially more junior members elected in 2006 and 2008 from Republican-leaning districts, are reluctant to vote for a big tax increase if it is unlikely to be included in the final bill.
Such a vote, they argue, would provide easy fodder for opponents seeking to paint them as tax-and-spend liberals. Those concerns prompted Ms. Pelosi over the weekend to warn the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, that she might have to delay the House vote on the bill until September unless she had a clearer idea of the Senate’s plans.

At the same time prominent Blue Dog Democrats are demanding that Obama slow down the health care train and are demanding a ‘bipartisan’ solution even though Republicans have shown little indication that thy are interested in a compromise bill.
But in a number of key ways, Democrats seem to be missing the political forest for the trees, focusing on all that could go wrong with health care and ignoring the opportunities for political gain.
First of all, Jim Demint is right: health care reform could represent a Waterloo moment for Obama . . . and for Democrats. If it doesn’t pass, not only will the Democratic brand lie in tatters, but one would imagine that voters would really start to question whether the federal government can accomplish anything. And if that happens every Democrat – whether they voted for a tax increase to pay for health care reform or against it – will pay the price. So if moderate Democrats think they’ve found some political high ground; think again. If health care reform fails and you’re going to get swept away with the same tide as your Democratic brethren. And the more vulnerable a seat you are in the worse the wave will be.
Second if health care reform passes, that’s a very good thing for Democrats. This is sort of stating the obvious, but it’s a fact that seems to elude many congressional Democrats. Yes, they might get branded as tax and spenders, but you know what the retort is, ‘I passed a health care reform that expanded care to millions of Americans.’ There is a reason, after all, that Republicans are fighting this bill tooth and nail. They understand that if Democrats get credit for passing a new entitlement that provides health care security for millions of Americans a) Democrats will get the credit and b) any hope they might have of unwinding the welfare state will be dashed. For the foreseeable future, Republicans will be playing politics on Democratic turf.
In fact, one of the most fascinating and depressing elements of the current health care debate for Democrats is failure even refusal to place any political benefit on passage of major health care reform – an issue that polls as among the most important domestic priorities for Americans. Barack Obama and the current Democratic Congress was elected to bring “change” to Washington – they weren’t elected to maintain the status quo or even worse, serve as an impediment to reform. Passage of health care legislation will bring with it real political benefits and will go a long way toward improving the image of the party as a whole.
And when it comes to the tax and spend issue if individual Democrats can’t find a way to win an election in which they’ve raised taxes on the wealthiest American to pay for health care for millions of working-class Americans – against a candidate of the deeply unpopular Republican Party – then they have no business being in politics in the first place.
Third, health care reform will please rank and file Democrats. Now I understand that for a lot of moderate House Democrats, their focus is on independents. But one would think that at a time when the Democratic brand is particularly strong, when significantly more Americans self-identify as Democrats than Republicans (35% to 21% according to an April Washington Post poll) and when Barack Obama has brought a significant number of new people into the party that keeping them happy would be high on a Congressional Democrats priority list. In 1994 one of the developments that did the most damage to Democratic incumbents in mid-term elections was diminished turnout from the party’s base of supporters. Do you think if Democrats pass a major health care bill that those same base voters – who are of particular importance in a generally low turnout mid-term election – will come out to the polls in significant numbers? Instead of worrying about GOP attacks maybe Democrats in tough seats should be worrying about how to keep their most loyal supporters happy.
Ed recently linked to Nathan Newman’s analysis of the 1994 congressional elections and one of his key conclusions is worth quoting in full here:

Clinton’s failure to deliver on health care and a real improvement in the economy for such lower-paid workers disillusioned them. The Democrats demonstrated how limited their party is in delivering benefits to working Americans, so they saw little difference in the parties and voted on cultural divisions rather than economic divisions.

Might be a lesson there for Democrats today.
Fourth, passing health care will benefit their constituents directly. This is actually what I would call a Blue Dog special. As Nate Silver pointed out a few days ago, 31 of the 48 House districts in which the seat is held by a Democrat – but McCain carried in the general election – have an above average number of uninsured Americans. Take for example Dan Boren, who has been one of the most prominent Blue Dogs calling for a delay in reform. Nearly 26% of his constituents don’t have coverage. Mike Ross is another prominent centrist Dem and in his district 22% of the population is uninsured. Again, if a Democrat can’t find a way to finesse a vote that expands coverage for more than 20% of their constituents into a good campaign narrative perhaps its time to find another line of work.
Finally, if the economy stinks in 2010, Democrats are going to be in trouble so they might as well pass a big health care bill that gives them a political chit to play. This one sort of speaks for itself. If the economy is in the toilet would Democrats rather go to voters and say ‘I held the line on taxes’ or ‘I made sure the deficit didn’t grow any bigger’ but vote for me? Or would they prefer to say ‘the economy stinks, but now for the first time in history every American has access to health care coverage . . . and my opponent voted against it.’
But also consider the flip side; if the economy is showing improvement by the Fall of 2010 then Democrats will not only enjoy a political advantage but they’ll be able to run for re-election on having passed health care as well. The political windfall could be enormous.
In the end, the political calculus on health care isn’t even close – passage of a health care reform package that improves access to care will bring far more political benefit for Democrats than if such a bill defeated. And to some extent Jim Demint and Bill Kristol’s ill-timed comments this week made clear the stakes for Democrats – and the opportunity. Pass health care and reap the benefits.

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