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What Did Rahm Emanuel Learn From 1994?

PH2009062202918.jpgOver at the Guardian, Michael Tomasky tries to put himself in the head of a "centrist legislator" considering his various options on health-care reform. The best outcome, says Tomasky, is that the bill fails and our imaginary centrist votes against it. The second-best outcome is that the bill passes, and our imaginary centrist votes for it.

That might be true. But it relies, I think, on assuming that our imaginary centrist has a very sketchy memory. To make this hypothetical a tad more concrete, let's draw out our imaginary Democratic centrist. In fact, let's call him Walt Minnick. Minnick represents Idaho's 1st District. He took office in 2008, after squeaking by the Republican with 50.6 percent of the vote. According to The Washington Post's vote tracker, he's the least reliable Democrat in Congress, voting with his party a mere 65 percent of the time. The question is, what should Minnick do?

The place to start, it seems, is to ask how Minnick won. And there the story is clear: He was carried in on the Democratic wave that washed through Congress in 2006 and 2008. His district is heavily Republican. But disgust with the Republican Party let him eke out a win in 2008. Minnick, however, is exactly the sort of marginal congressman who is likely to be turned out of office if voters turn against the Democrats. And they will do that if the tide turns against major Democratic initiatives and health-care reform fails and Barack Obama begins to seem less popular and Democrats like Minnick begin to distance themselves from the party.

Minnick is thus in a tricky position: His district will always be more conservative than the Democratic Party. But he needs them to not hate the Democratic Party so totally that they will vote for any Republican who runs against the specter of Obamacare. He needs, in other words, for Democrats to be successful even as he appears independent of them.

There's another former congressman who was frequently associated with the centrists and who learned this lesson rather well. Before Rahm Emanuel was Barack Obama's chief of staff, he was in Congress trying to get guys like Minnick elected. In September of 2007, he gave an interview to Politico on the lessons he learned from 1994. “You’ve got to have a plan for universal coverage," Emanuel said. "But you also have to have some product at the end of the process you can deliver.” You may not win, in other words. But you cannot fail to pass a bill.

Emanuel has carried that lesson with him into the Obama White House. "The only thing that's not negotiable is success," he likes to say. The worst outcome for the party -- in part because it's the worst outcome for its marginal members -- is defeat. Voters punish defeat. That's what happened to Minnick's Democratic predecessor in Idaho's First District, Larry LaRocco. LaRocco captured the seat in 1990 only to lose it in 1994, the last time Democrats failed to sign a health-care reform bill. It's possible, of course, that LaRocco would have lost his seat with or without health-care reform. But it's evidence that a bill not passing was not a great outcome for Idaho's lonely Democratic congressman. If you're a centrist in a district that doesn't like Democrats and events turn your constituents further against your party, your odds of survival are very poor.

Photo credit: Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press Photo.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 21, 2009; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Counter-intuitive thought is hard for conservatives? Facts are difficult, but this might be too much.

Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | July 21, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I have written to my congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick explaining this very scenario, but the impression of her I get is that she is simply not very smart and probably can't reason things through thoroughly enough to thread a needle like this.

Posted by: flounder2 | July 21, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

the whole point of having a two party system is so that we avoid what we've had in the last 10+ years. drastic swings. We went from too strong a conservative to now too strong a liberal. What we need are more centerists like the Blue Dogs. I'm liking them more by the day.

Posted by: visionbrkr | July 21, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

" If you're a centrist in a district that doesn't like Democrats and events turn your constituents further against your party, your odds of survival are very poor."

Of course, if you become a bought-and-paid-for affiliate of Corporate Healthcare, you still have a job waiting for you if you lose your re-election bid.

"What we need are more centerists like the Blue Dogs."

Uh huh. The Blue Cross Dogs are basically a bunch of self-centrists. I'm thinking of millionaire ex-failed-QB Heath Shuler, who gets to gallivant around with that mob while a quarter of adults in his district go uninsured.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | July 21, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm from Rhode Island, and for a Republican example of what Ezra's talking about, see Chafee, Lincoln. Popular guy, most liberal Republican in the senate, washed out of a blue state on a wave of resentment for the entire Republican brand. Ironically, much of that resentment was born out of disgust with the Iraq war, and he was the only GOP senator to vote against it. But if a rising tide can lift all boats, so can an ebbing one can ground them all, particularly in areas that lean ideologically away from the incumbent candidate.

Posted by: rayrick1 | July 21, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

But Ezra it seems to me that you ignore the fact that the Dems got creamed in 1994 not simply over health care but the fact that they passed other pieces of unpopular legislation, such as the 1993 tax increase, and the assault weapons ban. This and the general unpopularity of the Clinton administration is what doomed the Dems then.

If a health care reform passes that has effects that are unpopular, then the Dems will get creamed again. The safer route fir moderate Dems is to reject a bill that will disrupt health care delivery system or will bust the budget.

Posted by: panza2mil | July 21, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps I am burdened by too much knowledge to find your analysis persuasive. I think the adage that all politics is local is being ignored here.

Idaho's first district went for McCain over Obama 60.69% - 35.22%, so although the "D" wave helped, it's not as much of the story as it was in Rhode Island. I think far more people would say Walt Minnick won because he was facing Bill Sali -- who fellow Rs had been quoted criticizing and who didn't have the positive numbers that most other Rs in Idaho enjoy as a matter of course. Also, Minnick was at one time a Republican, a fact that definitely helped him. The less Minnick seems like a D, the more likely he is to get elected. Its entirely possible that sinking something his party wanted (health care) might actually help him win re-election.

Similarly, health care reform or the lack thereof is highly unlikely to have led to LaRocco's loss in 1994. The sexual harrassment allegations that broke on the front page of the paper days before the election (against a female opponent), was what seemed to do it. Having health care get passed couldn't have fixed that situation.

Posted by: vjmb | July 24, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Personally if I were Minnick I would do everything I could to push a liberal agenda because you aren't getting reelected anyway. Obama got 36 percent of the vote in Idaho. Bill Sali Minnicks previous opponenent was not well liked. 2008 was a wave year so in normal year Obama gets 30 percent or less. Unless Minnick can really bring home the bacon for his state Republicans will find a competenet candidate and clean his clock.

Posted by: CraigMcGillivary1 | July 25, 2009 12:56 AM | Report abuse

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