Monday, March 22, 2010

Timing Is Everything

There is much rejoicing today in some quarters because the House passed health care reform yesterday.

And, as E.J. Dionne observes in the Washington Post, Barack Obama and the Democrats made history by passing a health care reform bill.

Emotions certainly have been running high on this issue — on both sides, really, although emotions seem to be higher among the Democrats who voted in favor of it. Rep. Patrick Kennedy was practically on the verge of tears — given his late father's commitment to health care reform — when talking about the measure on Good Morning America.

Perhaps this reform plan really will lead to the improvements its supporters claim it will.
  • John Nichols writes in The Nation that the vote will stand the test of time.

  • It is "an accomplishment of historic proportions," crows the New York Times.

  • The actual implementation of health care reform will be messy and hard, the Minneapolis Star Tribune acknowledges, but the bill is "[a]n American cure for an ailing system."
Well, the Star Tribune is right. It will be messy. It will be hard.

And it will be years before most of the changes are in place. A lot of uninsured people are going to get sick and a lot of uninsured people are going to die before this legislation truly changes the way things are done in the American health care system — and my guess is that most of their survivors are going to wonder what all the fuss was about and why, since health care reform legislation has been passed, nothing could be done to help their loved ones.

I have said many times that I think health care reform is important. But I have believed all along that things were being done in the wrong sequence.

Until the economic meltdown in the fall of 2008, it was far from certain that Obama would win the presidential election. Once jobs began disappearing at a rate of six figures a month, the momentum moved in his way — not necessarily because of the possibility of health care reform but because of concerns about being able to provide the basics of food, clothing and shelter.

After Obama was elected, I believed then — and I still believe now — that job creation was the most important, most pressing issue and that the administration needed to focus on turning that situation around first. My reasoning was that, by focusing on jobs through the first half of his term, Obama could mitigate the losses a president's party typically endures in the midterm elections because he was emphasizing the issue that more Americans were worried about.

(It is certainly possible that I will be proven wrong, but let me point out that I've been studying elections and voter turnout since before my college days.)

Anyway, without Obama on the ballot, I figured it would be tough for Democrats to persuade the kinds of voters who were instrumental to Obama's victory in 2008 (i.e., the young, the minorities, the liberals) to participate in the midterms. We've had limited opportunities, so far, to see if I was right about voter participation, but the off–year elections in New Jersey and Virginia and January's special election in Massachusetts have shown that the groups who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 have not been participating in large numbers. (At this point, I see no reason to expect that they will be more inclined to show up at the polls in November.)

I believed focusing on jobs, whether successful or not, would preserve Democratic majorities for Obama beyond 2010. Those majorities still were likely to be diminished, but control of both chambers probably would remain in Democratic hands. Then, after the midterms were over, the focus could shift to health care reform — Obama would be on the ballot in the next election, and his presence might help other Democrats on the ballot by attracting those groups — who could be expected to be more receptive to Democrats — to the polls.

But that isn't how Obama and the congressional Democrats chose to do things. As unemployment continued to get worse, the Democrats focused their attention instead on health care reform, subjecting the nation to more than a year of divisive squabbling.

Well, they have their legislative victory. Will they also have an electoral victory in November?

Former Democratic pollster Pat Caddell made an interesting observation on Fox News. Now, I'm not a fan of Fox News — and I haven't always been sure what to think of Caddell since he had a falling–out with the Democratic Party some 20 years ago — but the observation made sense to me.

Caddell said the health care reform vote was the Democrats' "Jonestown moment." It may well be. It's certainly a theme that has been picked up by others. Perhaps it was picked up by some of the House Republicans during the floor debate — although I can't really say because the power in my apartment was out yesterday and I couldn't watch any of the coverage.

David Sanger admitted, in the New York Times, that Obama "will go down in history as one of the handful of presidents who found a way to reshape the nation's social welfare system." But he seemed uncertain whether "it was a historic achievement or political suicide for his party — perhaps both."

Obama's supporters — especially those who hadn't been involved in politics much before 2008— may not like it, but midterms usually go against the party in power because the voters' expectations usually have been unfulfilled. Political novices often seem to be shocked by that, and perhaps it is unrealistic for voters to expect as much as they do in less than two years, but, in the words of the late Walter Cronkite, that's the way it is.

And my belief has been, as I said earlier, that Obama was elected largely because of the economy and joblessness. I believe much of it was a backlash against George W. Bush — but, since he wasn't on the ballot, the voters punished the Republican nominee. Maybe the voters would have elected Obama, anyway — albeit by a much smaller margin — if the meltdown hadn't occurred. But, until I see clear evidence that the economy was not the primary force, I will believe that it was foremost in voters' minds when they went to the polls.

Some of those voters may well be pleased today that health care reform has passed. But when they compare their expectations in 2008 to the reality of 2010, I believe many will say this is not the change for which they thought they were voting.

Here's another tidbit of conventional wisdom gleaned from my years of studying American politics, as well as the political science courses I took in college — voters' opinions, especially during recessions, tend to harden about six months before an election.

Nearly 18 years ago, for example, after Bill Clinton had beaten George H.W. Bush in the general election, I heard some Republicans complain that many voters had decided against voting for Bush by May and June (when national unemployment was at 7.3% and 8.0%, respectively) — and many did, in fact, vote against him that fall, even though there were indications in the summer and fall (unemployment dropped to 6.9% by October) that the recovery was under way.

Anyway, assuming that item of conventional wisdom is still valid today — and I have no reason to think it is not — Obama has only two more months, at the most, to persuade voters that his administration is focused on putting millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Given the fact that unemployment has been hovering around 10% for several months now, that is going to be a tough, tough sell.

The other day, I wrote about Lyndon Johnson's address to Congress 45 years ago urging the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The part of the story that I did not mention was that, after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial segregation, Johnson told an aide, "We have lost the South for a generation." Johnson won by a landslide that November, but Democrats began gradually losing statewide races in the South after that, perhaps in no small part due to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was widely seen as a second civil rights bill, this one outlawing discrimination in voting. And Democrats continue to lose statewide races in the South today.

Then as now, Americans were polarized over the issue that was before the Congress. Then as now the president saw the issue as a moral imperative. But it seems to me that the big difference has been in the way Johnson and Obama approached the task of handling misconceptions. Johnson spoke to the nation in plain, simple, direct and honest language. "There is no Negro problem," he said. "There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem."

Perhaps Obama should have done the same with health care. I don't mean the professorial lecturing that he often does — just some straight talk that everyone can understand. He seemed to do that pretty well on the campaign trail, and it might have allayed some irrational fears. He almost certainly could have been expected to deal as effectively as possible with the misinformation about the impact on abortion law that almost certainly was an inevitable outcome of this debate.

In spite of all his talk about bipartisanship, Obama got not a single Republican vote yesterday — and he came close to losing enough of the members of his own party to derail the health care plan. But in the mid–1960s, Johnson had more support (proportionately speaking) from Republican lawmakers than he got from his own party, probably because many Southern Democrats opposed both measures.

When one considers what had been happening in America in the years before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, it's hard to imagine if the timing of those proposals could have been altered in a way that would have been more beneficial to Democrats. But then, as now, they held the White House as well as large majorities in Congress. In fact, in 1964 about two–thirds of the senators were Democrats, and a larger share of the House members were Democrats than is the case today. And the question that many Democrats asked then is the same question many Democrats asked about health care reform — "If not now, when?"

In hindsight, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act may seem like such obvious common sense legislation that it may be baffling how anyone could oppose either — or how Johnson could conclude that, with so much Republican support, they could cost Johnson's party the South for a generation.

But when one looks at the election returns from the last four decades, one must conclude that Johnson was right.

Will health care reform cost Democrats in the long term, the way civil rights and voting rights cost them 45 years ago? It might. The setback won't be confined to a single region, and the extent of the loss may depend upon whether the expected benefits materialize or not.

But much of the talk today among Republicans is of repeal, and there seems to be no doubt that this fight isn't over. I am sure it will be a campaign issue in this fall's midterms, and it appears likely to be a campaign issue in 2012 as well.

And that is one more reason why I believe the Democrats should have focused on the economy first.

Will health care reform hurt Obama in the short term? Barring a significant unexpected decline in joblessness, I think it will hurt Obama in the short term — and for the reasons I have outlined.

In politics, timing truly is everything.

1 comment:

askcherlock said...

The passage of Health Care can help to stimulate the economy, which I agree needs to be done. Small businesses will be able to offer health insurance. The need for doctors and hospitals will grow as more people will be insured and can address their health issues. Hence the need for construction of these hospitals and health care facilities. We had to start somewhere. Now let's build.