Looking Back II

by Jonathan Bernstein

Marc Ambinder -- and by the way, I think he's a terrific reporter, and I'm enjoying being down the virtual hall from him even though I'm taking issue with this particular post -- also says that the revival of health care reform is a "perfect storm," and in particular points to the Bunning filibuster and (in what he considers "perhaps the largest single current") the massive premium increases proposed by insurers this winter.  Ezra Klein responded with a tweet:

I think when we write the stories, Bunning and Wellpoint will figure in. But I don't think they were truly important.

Which is correct?  The reason this interests me is because of the relationship between causal analysis and storytelling.  For the former, the structural analysis is the "right" answer in this case.  Here's Jonathan Chait, the day after the Massachusetts Senate election:

Here is what I think will happen. The shock and panic will play itself out over a few days. Then the Democrats will assess the situation and realize that letting health care die represents their worst possible option. And then they will make a deal to pass the Senate bill through the House. I am not positive this will happen, but it's my bet, because elected officials at the national level, dim though they can be, are usually shrewd enough to recognize their political self-interest.

In the meantime, the display of hysteria is actually disgusting.

And lo and behold, that's pretty much what's happened.  They may not pass the bill, but they're pretty much where they were on New Year's Day, with the only significant difference being the structural issue that they need to use a "pass and patch" procedure instead of just agreeing to a bill and getting a majority in the House and 60 in the Senate.  The underlying situation, and not the emotions of the moment, are what matters.

But it's also true that, whatever the underlying structure that can push people in certain directions, those who are actually living through it don't feel as if they are being irrational one day, and then rational the next.  The events and experiences along the way feel as if they're influencing us.  What's really happening, however, is that we interpret those events and experiences in ways that are consistent with, in the case of politicians, their political interests.  So Democrats who have a (collective) electoral incentive to pass a health care bill, and in many or most cases also have a personal preference for action on one of the core issues of the Democratic Party for decades, are apt to interpret something like the premium increases as a signal to refocus on health care reform.  Democrats who have been frustrated by Republican tactics in the Senate were ready to pounce on the Bunning filibuster as another sign that it's okay to act in a partisan way.*  I don't quite want to say that if those events hadn't happened along that others would have automatically substituted for them (although it's clear that there are no shortage of either insurance company problems or Republican partisan actions), but the odds were pretty good that something would serve that role.  At the same time, anyone who wants to tell the story as the participants lived it should certainly include these details...the trick, as far as I'm concerned is to be careful about causal claims.

So: yes, the basic structure of the situation was very likely to drive Democrats to try to pass the bill even after the Massachusetts Senate results, but the way that it happened will involve these sorts of stories.

*One caveat: as far the particular stories, I'm not sure I see Ambinder's point on Bunning, which came after the summit and took place in the Senate, while the action here is in the House.  If, however, he thinks that Bunning is part of the story of marginal Democratic Members of the House getting to yes (as opposed to the choice by Pelosi, Obama, and others to move forward at all), then he may well be correct.