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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Democratic Party Is More Diverse Than Leadership Likes To Admit

This item, by TDS Co-Editor William Galston, was first published at The New Republic on July 31.
Over the past three election cycles, congressional Democrats have rebuilt an arithmetic majority. By the end of this year, they will demonstrate whether they constitute a governing majority. Now, as in the early 1990s, the acid test is health insurance reform. And now, as then, the failure to act as a governing majority will jeopardize, and could erase, their arithmetic majority.
Despite the waning of their post-Civil War southern bastion, Democrats remain ideologically diverse–far more so than Republicans. A recent Gallup survey showed that about two-fifths of rank-and-file Democrats regard themselves as liberal, another two-fifths as moderate, and the remaining fifth as conservative. To be sure, the ideological center of gravity among House and Senate Democrats is more liberal than at the grassroots. Still, congressional Democrats include in their ranks many who consider themselves moderate or even conservative, and whose election since 2004 has made a major contribution to the new majority.
As Michael Tomasky pointed out this week in a carefully researched piece, most of the 49 House Democrats hailing from districts John McCain carried are not as vulnerable as that bare fact might suggest. But that’s only part of the story. Twenty-six out of the 35 House Democratic freshmen (not all of whom identify with the Blue Dogs) won seats previously occupied by Republicans and are more vulnerable than established incumbents. For that reason, they demanded and won a delay in the House vote until after the August recess, giving them a chance to consult closely with their constituents. As for the Blue Dogs themselves, they tend to represent districts that are more rural and small town; small business comprise a greater than average share of their economic base. Citizens in these districts also tend to be more skeptical about the efficacy and integrity of government than those from (say) Nancy Pelosi or Charlie Rangel’s districts. Moderate Democrats understand the people in their districts, they represent their interests and values, and more often than not, they agree with the people they represent. The stances they adopt and the votes they cast represent conviction as well as calculation, much like their liberal counterparts.
This is not to say that they’re right and liberals are wrong. It is to say that if health insurance reform is to succeed, it must represent a blend of, and balance among, the diverse points of view within the Democratic coalition. The White House chief of staff seems to understand this, reportedly playing a key role in bringing Henry Waxman and the Blue Dogs back to the table after previous efforts had collapsed in acrimony. But the White House shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting; it’s up to the Democratic leadership and chairs of major committees to show some leadership as well. After all, they are supposed to be acting on the behalf of the party as a whole, not just on the basis of their own preferences. Henry Waxman drafted a bill with minimal input from moderate Democrats, in effect daring them to oppose the finished product. But that is not a good way for committee chairs to proceed, as John Dingell, the ex-chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee pointed out this week. And because the Senate bill will probably need 60 votes to pass, a process that includes all the moderate Democrats (and some less ideologically entrenched Republicans as well) is essential.
The stakes are very high, substantively and politically. The past four decades have witnessed a series of missed opportunities to reform our health care system. In the early 1970s, President Nixon proposed a comprehensive, employer-based health insurance plan, complete with employer mandates and subsidies for small business. But not even Senator Kennedy could persuade Democrats to go along with an approach that would have left room for private insurers. Since then, unattainable aspirations have consistently trumped practical possibilities.
Will history repeat itself? We’ll know by December. But one thing is clear: If we are to avoid yet another round of what health care expert Henry Aaron has analogized to Charlie Brown and the football, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate will have to persuade their colleagues not to make the best the enemy of the possible once more. In all probability, the public option (if there is one) in a bill that can pass will not be nearly as robust as liberals would like, subsidies for middle income families will not be as large, more small businesses will be exempt from the employer mandate (if there is one), the wealthy will be taxed less, and insurance plans above a defined threshold will be taxed in some way. Will Democrats hoping for something better torpedo such a bill? If so, we will have missed what may be our best chance in this generation to achieve near-universal coverage while restricting the ability of insurance companies to cherry-pick insurees and deny coverage arbitrarily. Millions of citizens would pay the price. And so would the party that once again failed to act as a governing majority.

2 comments on “The Democratic Party Is More Diverse Than Leadership Likes To Admit

  1. mjshep on

    I agree that we should not let the “perfect be the enemy of the good,” but we also should not let awful pass as the only alternative in a quest to get something.
    If a so-called reform legislation passes with coverage mandates but without a strong public option or adequate concern (read subsidies) for the middle class, especially the self-employed or those whose employers do not provide health care insurance, or real cost containment measures, than what will result is nothing less than a giant gift to insurers and other entrenched interests at the expense of the ordinary American.
    How would the average taxpayer feel about being forced to buy expensive, unsubsidized, crappy private insurance that won’t really cover their needs? Not very good, I imagine. Don’t think there will be a backlash from that? Think again.
    The “perfect” health care reform would be single payer. That is not going to happen. What does happen needs, at least, to be somewhat in the range of “good.” It seems Mr. Galston is not even willing to fight for that.

  2. dov on

    Long experience working on many policies domestic and foreign have taught me that comprehensive policies, that are based on different issue and political coalitions, require getting started in major ways. That’s what Obama, the Kennedy Committee and the three house Committees are trying to do.
    In a fight between the “utopians” and the “stand-patters,” the stand-patters win. Gaining health insurance access, gaining advances on health cost containment, prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage because of previous medical conditions have intrinsic value.
    The stand-patters (reeking with special interest agendas) have to be overcome. For the utopians to stand in the way is politically irresponsible and stands with those who say matters have to get worse so that we can get our way.
    It is immoral to make those without access to health insurance wait for the “perfect” health reform wave. Keynes reminded us that people live in the short run.


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