The High Cost of Failure
"[E]ven if health care was the predominant factor" in the 1994 midterm elections, writes Ed Kilgore, "it's not at all clear that the defeat of the Clinton health plan, as opposed to the composition and presentation (at least as perceived by the public) of the Clinton health plan, was the vote-killer."
That's certainly part of the story. But people shouldn't underestimate the impact of legislative defeat. The cost is not simply that the bill was derailed, or that a campaign promise went undelivered. The press amplifies failure by trying to explain it. It runs articles and op-eds and editorials constructing confident, surefooted arguing that the administration's defeat was the obvious outcome of a stupid strategy married to an inane bill. It publishes investigative pieces detailing the tensions in the White House and carrying anonymous quotes from embittered officials who don't want to bear the brunt of the blame.
The story of a bill's failure is not, in other words, confined to the bill, or even the three crucial senators who decided to support the filibuster and thus murder the legislation. Instead, it's expanded to include the White House. And so the White House is painted as ineffectual, and ideological, and riven by conflict, which increasingly makes all those things true. Articles are written quoting anonymous party strategists suggesting that congressional candidates put daylight between themselves and the administration if they want to survive the upcoming elections, which in turn weakens the White House's ability to pass the next piece of legislation.
There's an old saying in politics that no campaign is as good as they look when they're ahead or as bad as they seem when they're behind. In part, that's because of the sort of stories the press writes when it's explaining success versus justifying failure. This is the stuff momentum is made of, and in politics, momentum matters quite a lot. Kilgore is certainly correct that unpopular pieces of legislation die because they're unpopular before the vote. But they become a lot more unpopular, and a lot more damaging, after they're dead, because then the media gets to construct a clear storyline that ends in ignominy.
July 20, 2009; 12:20 PM ET
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