What Did Rahm Emanuel Learn From 1994?
Over 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.
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