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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 20, 2009; 12:20 PM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Obama Says Health-Care Reform "Must" Include Public Option
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Ezra, Robert Reich has a post where he says, "Political efforts to buy off Big Pharma, private insurers, and the AMA are all pushing up long-term costs..."

He also quotes the head of the CBO as saying "the cost curve is being raised."

If this is true - then reform has failed. Cost containment is the purpose of health care reform - when costs are contained, more people can afford health care. When costs are contained, businesses can focus more capital on innovation and improvements - and wages.

So if it is true that we're not going to focus on containing costs, what is the purpose of this reform? Adding millions of people to a bloated and inefficient system without reforming the bloated and inefficient system?

We'll bankrupt both large and small businesses - and we'll bankrupt the government - and then who'll be around to bailout Wall Street?

I don't think we need to give up the effort - I think we need to think long and hard about what the issues are and how to best solve them.

Here's a link to Reich's blog:

Posted by: anne3 | July 20, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Republicans want to kill health care because it will lead to the perception that we have another failed presidency. This is pure politics and I'm starting to wonder if the Blue Dogs don't care if the Democratic president is deemed a failure.

Posted by: mainer2 | July 20, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

John Kennedy in 1991: "There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan."

I wonder if Obama and advisors have fully internalized this wisdom.

There's some major irony here: the traditional foes of government healthcare (AMA, for instance) have hauled down the opposition flag to a great degree. It is the congressional Dems that could/likely will lose this battle. 1993 and 2009 are not identical, but the image of defeat hangs in front of our faces. This isn't horseshoes, and close isn't a win. The hoops score can be very close (110 to 109), but a win is a win. But if the GOP/shakey Dems have 110, they win.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 20, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

It's also worth remembering that there were a lot of other reasons why the Democrats lost seats in 1994 that hd nothing to do with the health care defeat. They were mired in a number of scandals; Dan Rostenkowski went to jail, 4 of the "Keating 5" were Dems, etc. At the same time the last of the Dixiecrats like Howell Heflin retired and were replaced by Republicans in their increasingly red states. The Democrats would have lost seats even if they had passed health care, but it's convenient to blame the '94 losses on the health care fiasco.

Posted by: J_Bean | July 20, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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