Avatar, Healthcare Reform and Our Nyah-Nyah Culture

James Cameron's Avatar was doomed to be a bust. This was more than popular opinion. It was gospel. Then the movie actually opened, made $73 million domestic on a weekend when half of the east coast was buried under snow, and racked up an astounding $232.2 million worldwide -- the best non-sequel opening in history.* What does James Cameron credit for the movie's success? All the free advertising from haters, of course.

This kind of flippant, semi-douchey send-off is de rigeur for directors like Cameron, whose megalomania famously dazzles in dimensions even his movies can't achieve. It's also, pretty obviously, bogus. The inadvertent-advertising "haters" were Hollywood bloggers and media gossipers Tweeting their suspicions to an audience of thousands. They had precisely zero impact on the $160 million made overseas in markets where Nikki Finke looks like a misspelling of Nike. Cameron should be proud of this opening, but his remark is just rhetoric.

Not to make a contortionist stretch here, but Cameron's reaction reminds me of the reaction to the health care bill. (Ha, no really, bear with me!) Writers like Jonathan Chait (whom I invariably love to read) are basically saying "thanks" to the health care reform-hating Republicans for uniting against reform and inadvertently making the bill more liberal, more popular, and more likely to pass. Like Cameron's claim, my sense is that this is chest-beating rhetoric with a hole in the chest where the facts are supposed to be.

Here's Chait:

[This bill] never would have happened if the Republican Party had played its cards right ... A few GOP defectors could have lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited than what President Obama is going to sign...

But Republicans wouldn't make that deal. The GOP leadership put immense pressure on all its members to withhold consent from any health care bill. The strategy had some logic to it: If all 40 Republicans voted no, then Democrats would need 60 votes to succeed, a monumentally difficult task. And if they did succeed, the bill would be seen as partisan and therefore too liberal, too big government...

The unified partisan front of the Republican Party forced the Democrats to adopt their own unified partisan front, something that appeared impossible as recently as this last summer.

My reactions:

1) I see no evidence that cooperation from Olympia Snowe or a handful of Republicans would have tugged this legislation to the right. After all, some of the places where Snowe seemed willing to compromise -- for example, a public option trigger -- are actually to the left of the current legislation, which lacks any sort of public option, whatsoever. So it doesn't follow that Republican cooperation with health care would have "lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited."

2) Chait seems to think that this bill is not seen as partisan and too liberal, but I worry that he's wrong. It seems pretty clear to me that support for this bill has dropped over the last few months as Republicans attacks have stepped up (Gallup figures below). Let's be straight: Democrats are passing their bill, but they're passing it into headwind.

Combined Support for/Opposition to Healthcare Legislation This Year

3) Did universal Republican opposition give Democrats the political space to join hands on health care, as I think Chait suggests? I don't see how. On the contrary, it gave conservative Democrats senators like Lieberman and Nelson the space to break rank, threaten a "no" vote and demand whatever they wanted, because the 60-40 Senate margin gave them effective veto power over the bill. A couple additional Republicans on the Democrats' side would have pushed the pro-healthcare numbers over 60, eliminated the threat of the filibuster and blunted the ability of any one senator to drag the bill to the right. It seems to me that a few extra Republicans would have almost certainly guaranteed a more liberal bill.

Upshot: I don't think Republicans blundered on health care. They dragged down the bill's approval significantly. They delayed passage of reform for months despite a huge disadvantage in numbers, and shined a spotlight on Democratic infighting. And they've set themselves up for a simple 2010 message: We all voted against a health care bill that you don't instinctively like; that makes Medicare cuts our grandparents don't want; that makes some people buy health insurance they can't afford; and that taxes our most comprehensive plans. That is a daunting message.

For liberals to nyah-nyah-nyah at the GOP is their prerogative, I suppose. But it's not especially useful in terms of understand this debate. And with midterms around the corner, it strikes me as a powerfully unkarmic thing to do.

*As impressive as these numbers are, it's important to remember that box office tickets increase faster than inflation. So it's practically meaningless to use terms like "best non-sequel opening ever." For more on ticket inflation, read this.