Are Democrats Setting Themselves Up for Electoral Catastrophe?
James Morone is the co-author of a new book on presidential efforts to pass health-care reform, and Short Stack, the Post's book blog, asked him weigh in on the current tussle. Moderate Democrats, he says, are making a terrible tactical error:
On this last political score, the Clinton episode offers a political lesson that the Democrats seem to have completely missed. Many Democrats are moving to whittle back health reform in order to win over moderate, fence-sitting, frightened independents.
Go back and look at the midterm tsunami that swept the Democrats out of office the last time. The turnout for that wave was just 36 percent. Moderate, fence sitting independents don't vote in midterm elections with a 36 percent turn out.
What really happened back in 1994? The Republican base — jubilant, mobilized and angry — turned out. The Democratic base — dispirited, disenchanted and demobilized — stayed home. As Democrats ponder which way to go in this latest round, they ought to read the political lessons more carefully: Short-term electoral success rests with the base, the people who got excited about "change we can believe in." Long-term electoral success rests in designing and pushing through a program that then grows very popular.
In fact, Medicare passed with only 10 Republican votes in the House and quickly grew extremely popular; Democrats began warning voters about the nefarious Republican plans to scuttle Medicare so often that a new word slipped into the American political lexicon: Medagogue, verb, to demagogue the health care issue. Somehow, the Republicans have managed to steal the Democrats signature move.
That's well-phrased: The political danger is not just that a failure on health-care reform will anger the electorate. It will also change the composition of the electorate. Dispirited Democrats will stay home. Energized Republicans will press their advantage. Add in that the wave of young voters who were energized by Obama's campaign probably aren't going to turn out for the midterm election anyway, and you're looking at a pretty unfriendly landscape.
That's why the midterms are dangerous for Democrats. Losing on health care and collapsing into recriminations and internal divisions pretty much guarantees that Democratic voters of all sorts are turned off. You don't just win elections by being popular. You win elections by making sure that the people who like you turn out to vote.
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