Thursday, January 21, 2010

What's next?

Your guilty conscience may force you to vote Democratic, but deep down inside you secretly long for a cold-hearted Republican to lower taxes, brutalize criminals, and rule you like a king. That's why I did this: to protect you from yourselves.
-Sideshow Bob
Ok, we're all feeling devastated over the possibility that Scott Brown's unthinkable victory has doomed health reform, that Democrats have, once again, clutched defeat from the jaws of victory.  As I wrote yesterday, The Choakley establishes a whole new level of losing.

But get your heads up, it's time to move forward.  All is not lost, and health reform is not dead yet.  

Indeed, liberal bloggers spent the day explaining the myriad possibilities for passing the bill.  By far the simplest solution would be for the House to simply pass the Senate bill as is, and then "patch it up" across the next several weeks by passing separate legislation through budget reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered.  More complicated would be to break up the bill, passing the more controversial portions through reconciliation and then essentially daring Republicans to vote against the popular ones.  Heck, there's even a hint that with Scott Brown already facing tough reelection prospects in 2012, it may be possible to persuade him and Olympia Snowe to agree to a compromise bill and avoid a filibuster.

So passing the bill seems workable, and hardly time to throw in the towel.

But inevitably, there are already calls from the putrid punditry to abandon the whole shebang.  Martha Coakley's defeat, so the conventional wisdom goes, was actually a rejection of President Obama, health care reform, and the national Democrats by angry Massachusetts voters.  Her loss reveals, so these pundits say, that Democrats have shifted too far to the left--too liberal even for Massachusetts--and must therefore reign in their progressive policies to avoid disaster in November.

Frankly, I just don't see the logic.  I don't claim to understand the intricacies of Congressional procedures, but I do know two things: this election was in no way a referendum on the person or policies of President Obama, and abandoning health reform now would be political suicide for Democrats.

Take, for example, The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, who maniacally cackles, "Obama's agenda, chiefly health care, took a beating in Massachusetts. In fact, it was the chief cause of Coakley's defeat."  Really?  On what basis?  For this to be true, you would have to believe that Massachusetts voters rejected Coakley because she supports a LESS liberal version of a health care policy already in place in their state--which Coakley's opponent voted FOR when he was in the state senate!  How can Scott Brown have won because of voters' opposition to health reform when he voted for a MORE liberal health bill himself?

Moreover, if voters opted for Brown out of rejection of President Obama, the polls would have been tight for months.  Instead, they show a steady double-digit lead for Coakley, which collapsed over the last two weeks.  Nothing happened over that period which would have made Obama's policies dramatically less popular in Massachusetts.  Simply put, there's just no logical way to spin this as a referendum on Obama's health reform package.

(For further reading, check out Nate Silver's post here, one of the smartest I've read.)

But even assuming that I'm wrong, and that this election actually DOES reveal health reform's deep-seated unpopularity, Democrats should NOT respond by moving to the right and abandoning the Obama agenda.  You can't beat a Republican by becoming more like one.  That's a foundational tenet of marketing: if you don't differentiate, you're dead.

Pretend you're a House Democrat.  The House could pass health reform right now and be done.  It's already passed its own health care bill.  For reform to fail now, it would mean that some House Democrats who had voted for reform would have to switch their votes and vote against the Senate bill--either you're a liberal who doesn't think the bill goes far enough, or a conservative who's spooked by Coakley's defeat.

Ultimately, I don't think House liberals will kill the bill.  The real worry is that "moderates" will abandon the bill to shore up their conservative credentials.

The key point is that if you're one of those wavering moderates, voting against the bill gains you nothing, because you've already voted for a health care bill.  Once you voted for the initial House bill, your die was cast, and nothing you do now can prevent the wave of attack ads for that initial vote.  What does abandoning health care now gain you except the privilege of saying, "I actually voted for health reform before I voted against it"?

More fundamentally, if you vote against health care, and you vote against climate legislation, and you vote against the stimulus, and you vote against financial regulation... what is left that defines you as a Democrat?  If you agree with conservatives on every major issue, why wouldn't a conservative voter just vote for a Republican and get the real thing?

As someone who does sales and marketing research for a living, I can tell you that you won't sell anything by making your product the same as everyone else's, by competing on the same attributes and features as your competitors.  You have to carve out your own space where you stand out.  Similarly, you can't beat a Republican if you have nothing different to offer.

I'll close on this note, by quoting Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic:

For all of the panic in Democratic ranks right now, the reality of the situation is stunningly simple. In the span of twenty-four hours, the House of Representatives--the House in which Democrats command a huge majority, in which liberals actually have some sway, and in which leadership actually has power--could put health care reform on the president's desk for signing.
One lousy vote. One lousy, stinking roll call vote. That's the only hurdle in the way of health care reform.
Are Democrats really willing to give up now?
Give your Congressperson a call and tell them not to give up now: pass the Senate bill and work out the kinks later.

UPDATED: More evidence that opposition to health reform is not what sank Martha Coakley:
  •  82% of Obama supporters who voted for Brown support the public option, as do 86% of Obama voters who stayed home. 
  • 57% of Obama voters who stayed home on Tuesday support the Senate health care bill or think it doesn't go far enough.
  • And of Obama voters who cast a ballot for Brown, nearly half (49%) support the Senate bill or think it does not go far enough. Just 11% think it goes too far.  

To be fair, that poll was commissioned by, but they're some interesting numbers nonetheless.


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