Health Care: Git 'Er Done!

Last week, Jonathan Chait responded to me, arguing that Democrats have already taken all the political hit they're going to from passing health care, since each house voted for a bill. Of course, if Chait is right, then Democrats should probably do it--at least, if you think that democracy should put zero weight on the actual opinions of those slack-jawed rubes in the electorate.  But this logic seems highly questionable to me.

Who are you more likely to leave:  the spouse who makes a pass at another woman, and then thinks the better of it, or the spouse who goes through with it?  Maybe you'll leave them either way.  But it does not follow that they are better off going through with it.  I don't think it is actually true that trying to pass a bill people hate, and then thinking the better of it because it turns out the electorate hates it, is no different from trying to pass a bill people hate, finding out that they really, really hate it, and then ignoring them and pushing it through anyway.

Moreover, I am sort of amazed that anyone does think this.  The Republicans suffered a crushing electoral defeat after failing to pass Social Security reform.  But raise your hand if you think that their electoral prospects would have been better in 2006 had they managed to ram through a bill that was polling in the mid thirties?  Okay, Karl, put your hand down.  The rest of us realize that no matter how bad 2006 was, it could have been worse.  And would have been, had the AARP been stalking the GOP with murder in its heart.

This applies equally to Clinton's reversal in 1994.  Yes, he lost a bunch of seats.  He could have lost more.  I find little evidence that the public prefers parties who do things they actively oppose, to parties that "can't get anything done".

I am similarly underwhelmed by the notion that once we've passed the bill, it will somehow be easier to sell "what's in it."  There is lots of information about what is in the House and Senate bills, but the public has clearly not consumed that information.  Why are they going to magically become more wonkish after it passes?

I find it easier to make the counterargument--that in districts where the thing polls moderately well, it's easier to make up pleasant characteristics for a bill that never passed, and then complain that Republican obstructionism prevented us from realizing the dream.  Whatever emerged from a Senate + reconciliation strategy will almost certainly be uglier than either the House or the Senate bills on their own.

Indulge me for a moment, and say the bill passes, and that it polls where it is, or slightly worse, by next fall. That's hardly a crazy supposition, considering the further deals that will have to be cut to make it pass, and the fact that Republicans will happily make procedural hay about using reconciliation.

Are Democratic candidates going to be out there campaigning on their awesome new health care bill?  Hardly.  In most districts, their opponents are going to be campaigning against it, and Democrats will defensively be saying that, well, you know, it's not really that bad.  At least if it doesn't pass, they can claim that they were actually voting to advance towards some never-never bill that was going to emerge from conference.

There is nothing good you can say about an actual bill that you couldn't say about a bill that you voted for, but didn't pass.  It's true that this is going to make campaigns hard next fall.  But at least now Democrats can say that they thought the better of it.  What's their excuse if they pass it?

It's true that if it fails, it will be subject to "lengthy, painful postmortem coverage detailing its flaws and mistakes".  But you know who reads such coverage?  Me and Jonathan Chait, and we already have pretty strong opinions. If it passes, it will also be subject to lengthy, painful postmortem coverage in the nation's "Your Money" columns.  As a veteran of reading those columns, I am pretty sure they are going to focus heavily on the fact that starting in 2014, you will be required to buy health insurance, or pay a hefty fine to the IRS.  It will also mention the subsidies, and so forth.  But the very unpopular mandate is going to loom large, because that is, for the sort of people who read "Your Money" columns, one of the most crucial pieces of information. 

Finally, as they say in grief counseling, "Time is the great healer."  Passing HCR at this point would take place in what, March?  Moving it three months closer in peoples' angry memories.  And meanwhile, taking up legislative time and energy from the kinds of popular things that legislators like to pass in election years in order to sweeten their prospects. 

I'm just not seeing it.  Of course, a pundit's opinion about this tends to coincide pretty neatly with their opinion about the proposed reform bills, so take that for what it's worth.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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