Democrats, Healthcare, and the Future of Politics

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I was about to take issue with a recent post by Jonathan Chait on the politics of healthcare reform, but I see he launched a pre-emptive strike against one of mine, so I'll start by responding to that. Chait accuses me of contradicting myself when I call this a tainted victory. I argued that (a) the healthcare plan has moderate, centrist ambitions and (b) Obama broke faith with American voters by subordinating himself to liberal Democrats in Congress. Absurd! And I say these things in the same column!

Is this logic so very hard to penetrate? I don't think I am the first person to draw the distinction between the product and the process. The product is a centrist plan. Chait and I agree about that. It is so centrist, as Chait pointed out in a note on the progressives' suicide impulse, that many liberals had to hold their noses to vote for it. How quickly we forget. A week ago, the plan that now has all Democrats in rapture (and rightly) was so popular with much of the party in Congress that Pelosi wanted to pass it without asking her members to vote for it. At the beginning of March Chait wrote:

[T]he most committed Democrats believe, absurdly, that the final bill has been compromised down to something that only barely improves the status quo.

All in all, the liberal strategy of focusing on the public option and constantly harping on the bill's shortcomings has won few identifiable concessions and has significantly increased the chance that no bill at all will pass.

Agreed. Now, my point is to ask, where was Obama in all this? Was he leading the party and the country to the centrist plan which the Democrats ended up with? No. He called for change, but was mostly absent from the debate about the form it should take. When he did express a view, he spoke up for the public option, though signaling he would not go to the stake over it. He outsourced leadership on the issue to the Democrats' Congressional leaders.

Nancy Pelosi is not a centrist. In the end, conservative Democrats, with no help from Obama--ask them how they feel about that--forced her to a centrist position. Finally Obama came through too, rallying support for the bill when the alternative was outright failure. Good for him. But in the meantime, he had stood aside from a long internal quarrel which, as Chait himself has described, undermined public support for a cause voters started out strongly supporting. The quarrel, and Obama's distance from it, gave us Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts. It nearly sank the whole effort.

So much for the history. In the larger scheme, most of this no longer matters. The reform is law, and Pelosi and Obama will get the credit or the blame, as the case may be.  What counts now is what happens next, which brings me to Chait's post on Democrats and the centre.

I think it's worth thinking through what we've learned from the health care triumph. I think it has altered Democratic thinking about political strategy, but hasn't completely overturned it.

The Clintonite political strategy was a hyper-vigilant application of what political scientists call "median voter theory." In a nutshell, the theory holds that the most powerful force in politics at any given moment is the voter in the center of the political spectrum. The party that hews closest to the center wins the allegiance of that median voter and wins the election. The Clintonite approach was to ruthlessly purge the party of any positions that alienated the center. Democrats would embrace capital punishment, welfare reform, middle-class tax cuts, and anything else they needed to do in order to avoid being stuck holding an unpopular position.

...[H]ealth care reform is a seminal political moment in that it is a repudiation of the party's extreme terror of ever finding itself south of 50% on any major issue. Republicans have done well by grasping that American politics is not an issue-by-issue referendum conducted with an informed audience. Democrats are finally catching on.

Chait seems to think that passing healthcare reform tells us something about whether this strategy will work. Isn't it a little early to be making that judgment? Passing healthcare reform is a heady moment, but it does not signify the success of post-Clintonism. Getting Democrats in Congress to support their own healthcare reform is one thing. Persuading voters to re-elect those Democrats is another.

This great legislative victory has set up that test. Passing healthcare reform was not a defining moment in political strategy--but November's elections sure will be. Passing healthcare reform will not change the Democratic party for ever--but succeeding electorally on the back of it might.

The Democrats have passed a transformative law on a party-line vote and against, at the time of passage, the balance of public opinion. If they do no worse in November than they would expect in a normal electoral cycle, then yes, Clinton's strategy stands refuted--all the more so, of course, if they do better than in a normal mid-term. That would be the time for Democrats to "catch on", to "think through what they have learned", and to start looking for more doors to kick through. Until then it is less a matter of thinking through what they have learned than of contemplating the gamble they have taken, and striving to make it pay off.

If it does, that's a very big deal. I'm skeptical, but keeping an open mind. It could happen. Public opinion might be moldable in just the way the post-Clintonites say. But let's not talk as though it has happened already.



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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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