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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.

Big mistake.

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.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 26, 2009; 11:48 AM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: Kennedy and Compromise


I live in Ann Kirkpatrick's district (AZ-01). She seems to have decided that positioning herself to the right of the Blue Dogs is a canny re-election strategy. Her reward so far is a steady stream of letters to the editor calling her Pelosi's lap-dog and complaining that she hasn't shown up to get tea-bagged in person by the angry right. I keep asking her office how this strategy of voting against the President and trying to appease birthers is supposed to work? I ask who is going to make calls and ring doorbells for her, because it sure as heck ain't me.

Posted by: flounder2 | August 26, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: cog145 | August 26, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

"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."

Exactly. But the Dems continue to have what I can only describe as a "#*¢k the base" attitude.

Maybe that works in Presidential years, but it's a disaster in midterms, when turnout is way down, and passion can carry the day.

And it will be the Dems in purple-to-red districts or states that will get clobbered the hardest if they don't give their constituents any reason to be voting FOR them, as flounder2 suggests above.

Posted by: rt42 | August 26, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Yes on all of this. I've been thinking this for about a month. Without the promise of health care, the attitude of Democratic voters toward their party will change considerably. It's an indelicate analogy, but it's like finding out that your lovely new wife can't have children. Won't make you divorce her, necessarily, but it'll make a difference in your expectations.

Posted by: wovenstrap | August 26, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

This is absolutely dead on. There were many groups who stayed home in 1994. One was single women, IIRC. They are among the Dem Party's biggest demographics. They are also one of the groups who benefits most by health care reform.

Not just them, not just young people, but also African-Americans who were excited about Obama won't turn out for the Party That Betrayed Him (and them).

Sometimes I think the Senate Dems and Blue Dogs would rather be in the minority because it is less demanding. Just look at the GOP.

What a bunch of deluded cowards.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 26, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Your libs aren't going to get thrown out at the midterms -- your blue dogs are. They don't represent liberals, they represent largely disaffected conservatives.

Those constituents didn't vote for socialism, and they're sure as hell not going to reelect it.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | August 26, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

This will also be self fullfilling in future election. Blue Dogs who lost will get beaten by the rabid, extreme wing of the GOP which is pretty much all that will be running next fall. Once they lose, future Blue Dog Dems in those districts will think they'll need to move even further to the right to win those seats back.

What is pimped as the "shift to the right" in this country is less in the beliefs and positions supported by the voters as a whole, but more in the movement of the GOP politicians much further to the right (the moderate wing of my youth in the 70s is largely dead) and the responsive movement to the "center" (though atually right) of Dem politicians thinking they need to draw in conservative voters. They've largely given up making compelling arguments for progressive and liberal positions/policy, and held the belief that the progressive/liberal base will vote for them as they have no other choice.

It's literally when DiFi does out here in CAL.


Posted by: toshiaki | August 26, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

@toshiaki: "and held the belief that the progressive/liberal base will vote for them as they have no other choice."

And the two party system keeps on giving...

I wonder if Obama's greatest contribution will be catalyzing the development of a viable national Progressive Party.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | August 26, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

you've already got division in the Democratic Party and it can be attibuted to the mixed messages (single payer, Public Option, Co-op) coming from all angles.

Seemingly the Republican party is unified so I would expect some retribution come 2010 but again its a long time between the end of this year and the election and many things can push more Republican's to vote and more importantly push Independents to vote Republican. Cap and Trade, Immigration Reform etc. Advice for Democrats. Don't bite off more than you can chew. Bite some because its your mandate given to you in 2006 and 2008 but if you go too far the electorate will let you know you went too far.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 26, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for posting this, EK. I wish you could pin it to the top of your page -- most important post I've seen in a long, long time.

Posted by: AZProgressive | August 26, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"Long-term electoral success rests in designing and pushing through a program that then grows very popular."

That's the "addiction effect" -- Drug Dealing 101. If you create a subsidy on which people become dependent, they will vote to keep it.

But, is the goal to stay in power to have a good government??

Posted by: rmgregory | August 26, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

"I wonder if Obama's greatest contribution will be catalyzing the development of a viable national Progressive Party."

I wonder if Obama's greatest contribution will be the herds of unicorns grazing on the National Mall.

Posted by: davis_x_machina | August 26, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

In 2010 if we see a backlash I expect that it will be a lot less intense than the one in 1994. In 1994 the Reagan Republican era was still in ascension. Those days are over. The bile on right-wing radio is just as intense as ever, but the audience for that bile isn't growing (even though FNC numbers have gone up in recent months, it remains a subset of the larger radio audience).

As far as the health care legislation goes, you could make arguments on both sides.

e.g. A strong reform measure might serve as a rallying point for the GOP base, or it could dishearten the GOP base (on the Dem side it might lead to further complacency, or it could serve as additional motivation). A strong reform measure might cause a spike in GOP fundraising as vested interests seek to reverse the legislation; whereas a weaker reform bill might result in the industry covering its bets.

I really don't know how this one will play out yet.

The other side of this too: The GOP are playing defense once again in the Senate. Maybe the national wave results in a -1 GOP loss instead of -5, but they still have an uphill road to climb.

The demographic trends strongly favor the Dems going forward, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the GOP's last stand in 2010. They could make some inroads in 2009 too. But at this point, who really knows.

Posted by: JPRS | August 26, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Exactly right, Mr. Klein. Hopefully your popular bloggy comrades will jump on this and bring it to light. And for me, one of the worst offenders in this dance with electoral death has been Mr. Natural, our beloved President. His lack of cajones on stating forcefully and repeatedly what health reform means, and what it must look like, is having and will have real effects. It's fallen to the troops - Dean, Weiner, Schumer etc. - to push the messages that the White House should've been on top of from the beginning. No reason Team Obama couldn't play the "give 'em enough rope" game AND cement the preferred narrative at the same time. Very disappointing political calculation, and when this thing goes through (I predict with a government run option) the positive rebound for the Dems will be significantly less than it could've been. I hope Team Obama are taking careful notes.

Posted by: sblaisdell | August 27, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse


but the problem is that is not the FULL democratic party. You're divided. You may believe it shouldn't be but you are. You have progressive who want single payer, you have liberals who want a public option and you want conservative Democrats (who you'll call Republicans' in sheep's clothing) who want a co-op at best.

If you want to unify the Democratic party to your ideals you're going to have to move them all to espouse your ideas and that won't happen in healthcare anytime soon.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 27, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

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