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The Power of Unpopularity

PH2009081403553.jpgThe White House is hinting -- and by hinting, I mean saying -- that recent comments from Republicans are beginning to persuade them to abandon all hopes of bipartisanship. This could be because they're actually abandoning hopes of bipartisanship or because they want to signal a willingness to abandon hopes of bipartisanship to force the Gang of Six to demonstrate real progress. Or both. But that's the new line.

The question, of course, is whether centrist Democrats become more or less constructive if the Gang of Six process falls apart. If Blanche Lincoln comes out and says that Democrats did all they could do to invite Republicans into the process and there was just no good faith across the aisle, that will matter quite a lot. If she says she still holds out hope for a bipartisan compromise and wants to give the negotiators more time, that will be a real problem.

The White House, presumably, knows all this. If they go it alone, they need to be able to hold it together. Matt Yglesias notes that this looks more difficult, given that "Barack Obama’s approval rating was considerably higher two months ago than it was today." But it's worth wondering whether that could help, in some odd way: Centrist Democrats know what happened last time a popular young president failed in a massive push to reform the health-care system and lost his high public approval in the process. A historic number of centrist Democrats lost their jobs. More than 50 of them, in fact. Liberals, conversely, kept their seats, because their seats are safe.

The central political reality of health-care reform is that if the bill fails, the vulnerable centrists who are queasiest about supporting it will be the casualties of its collapse. Properly understood, Barack Obama's popularity is not very useful for pressuring wavering Democrats. If the president remains popular, they have little to fear. Rather, it's his unpopularity that should concern them.

Photo credit: Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  August 19, 2009; 4:09 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: Americans Hate Everyone, Believe Everything


What you're really getting at is that they are being forced to choose between two sub-optimal options: running as a Dem along with a "failed" Dem president, or running with a "successful" president but having to defend a vote for a bill that's more liberal than their constituency.

There's another interpretation. Centrist Democrats may see this question as heads they lose, tails they lose. Therefore, with nothing to really lose, they insist upon a bill that's exactly to their liking or else. Because for them, either "else" outcome-- a failed bill or an overly liberal bill-- spells disaster for them personally.

Posted by: wisewon | August 19, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

Mainstream [you call them 'centrist'] Democrats should be fearful of the White House allowing an other-than-bipartisan health insurance reform bill to pass and equally fearful of no bill passing. Personally, I think that mainstream Democrats might actually be relevant in the House, regardless of the Gang-Of-Six status.

I suppose I'm echoing the interpretation given in the second paragraph of the 4:26 post by wisewon.

Posted by: rmgregory | August 19, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Well, we have already seen what happens when vulnerable dems run without passing key legislation with a president that was thwarted in his main policy goal in 1994. Anything would be better than that outcome. Of course, NAFTA was another hugely stupid move for Clinton, but it should have won him some love from the conservadems in congress. Unfortunately, the people in those districts seeing their jobs evaporate probably weren't as happy as their representatives.

Posted by: srw3 | August 19, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Centrist Dems are primarily from rural, resource poor states without the district donor base to fund their campaign so they need to extort as much money from major, nationwide democratic donors (doctors, health insurance, big pharma) as humanly possible before returning to their districts and denouncing "Washington as usual" politics while obfuscating their actual position on the issue so that they can do the same thing next time Congress considers health care. As for their vote, how much can you give?

Posted by: besmit02 | August 19, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

But what would the centrist Dems be running on? They need to achieve some kind of liberal policy goal. After all, that's what they were elected to do. It's a lot easier to defend a disputed bill to constituents who elected you with healthcare reform in mind than to defend a failure to do anything.

Posted by: etdean1 | August 19, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

"Rather, it's his unpopularity that should concern them."

But as I've commented before, it seems that Obama's working directly with Centrists and shunning the "safe liberals." I wish you would comment on Glenn G's recent post because I've nearly lost all faith in the Dems, much less health reform -->

Posted by: Chris_ | August 19, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

"Mainstream [you call them 'centrist'] Democrats"

Non sequitur. Back to the troll corner with you.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | August 19, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

The people who really are at fault are the liberals in congress like nancy pelosi and barney frank who face no political repercussions for this vote. I am pretty sure Chet Edwards, Bobby Bright, Heath Shuler, and I can go on, can't afford to be associated with this. They are the reason the Democrats have majorities in the first place. If Howard Dean wants to run primary challenges against them, then by all means. I am pretty sure you can write off 40-50 house seats if that's the case.

Posted by: TexasProud1 | August 19, 2009 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Raising the specter (oh, that name!) of the 1994 Democratic losses in Congress as a direct result of the failed Clinton healthcare reform effort is a little disingenuous.

None of the Democrats who were clearly identified with Clinton as supporters of his program lost their seats.

What cost many of them their seats were a mix of local issues and corruption scandals, like the House Post Office issue. A few, however, did lose their seats for siding with Clinton on his budget.

But healthcare? That albatross was pretty well hung around Clinton's neck alone. I won't go so far as to say the health plan was no factor, but plenty of other things were more decisive for voters.

Posted by: Rick00 | August 19, 2009 6:31 PM | Report abuse

The folks are hep to Obama.

That means a clean sweep of Congress next year.

There's really no where for Libs to hide.

Posted by: FreedomFan | August 19, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

Have you noticed that the Democrats are treating the Health Reform protesters the same way the Republicans treated the Iraq war protesters? They pick out the craziest ones in the bunch and try to characterize the whole lot of them by the actions of a few loonies. I guess this is just how democratically elected officials try to defuse popular dissent.

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | August 19, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

If Democrats would just focus on passing a good bill with a national public option, all these political concerns would take care of themselves.

Posted by: bmull | August 19, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

The dems haven't really given anything to the GOP that matters to them. How about sweetening it with real tort reform?
The fact is, if the dems pass health care reform without any GOP votes, that's fine - but they will *own* it. Any success, or failure will be completely on them. If they are truly sure that what they are doing is the right thing, and that it will succeed, just get on with it and pass the legislation.

Posted by: invention13 | August 20, 2009 12:18 AM | Report abuse

The problem with threatening centrists with loss of their positions is they are not dumb.
DailyKos, HuffPo, Openleft, etc. HAve made clear for over a year now they are going on a "BlueDog Hunt" no matter what in 2010.
Doesn't matter whether they vote for or against the health care reform. The Progressive left is determined to drive them all out of office. And there is not a thing that Pres. Obama or you can do to stop it.
The Moderate Democrat has nothing ... absolutely NOTHING to gain by voting WITH the President.
Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

The Progressives have them in their sights and are locked and loaded no matter what.
No forgiving the "Bush enablers" ... nope nope nope.

So with nothing to gain from SUPPORTING, the only thing that they can hope for is to deny instead.

Posted by: chromenhawk | August 20, 2009 3:47 AM | Report abuse

The central political reality of health-care reform is that if the bill fails, the vulnerable centrists who are queasiest about supporting it will be the casualties of its collapse. Properly understood, Barack Obama's popularity is not very useful for pressuring wavering Democrats. If the president remains popular, they have little to fear. Rather, it's his unpopularity that should concern them.
The REASON Obama's popularity has fallen is because he's governing as a leftist, something many moderates feared he'd do, but for various reasons they were willing to give him a try anyway. If he continues to govern from the Left, then moderate districts will continue to fall away. Moderate Dems, if they want to keep their seats should reject his policies if they are too socialistic, but embrace those that aren't completely insane. Only by painting left-wing policies as the complete joke that they are can they manage to hold onto those seats.

Posted by: websterr1 | August 20, 2009 5:56 AM | Report abuse

What ALL Dems should worry about is this bill passing, employers telling employees they are going to drop their health plans and send them to the Gov Option, and then the Gov Option totally unprepared to process claims or explain a benefits package. That would seal the fate of ALL Dems for a very long time.

Posted by: bill_baar | August 20, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

PS... and then the new Ross Perot who makes his fortune processing the claims for the Gov Plan comes back and demolishes what's left of the Democratic party in 2012 or 2016,

Posted by: bill_baar | August 20, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

What this implies for the survival of centrist Democrats is that they should change sides, so to speak. Instead of intra-party jockeying, which causes them to be associated with the liberal extremes, they should come out against the health care plan and openly side with Republicans who say that we should wait another day for any health care legislation. They should be prepared to do this across multiple issues, because voters are now awakened in epochal proportions. And most voters are either conservative or right-leaning independents.

Posted by: G418 | August 20, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Lesson in basic logic: If you construct a syllogism and reach an obviously absurd conclusion, you should examine very carefully your premises. The conclusion that unpolularity is powerful in a representative democracy is absurd. The false premise that led to it is the idea that the great Democrat debacle of 1994 was a result of the failure of Hillarycare. Others have pointed out many other factors that drove moderate Dems from their seats in 1994. Here is one more: the public thought (rightly) that handing over the rehaul of 18 percent of the economy to the UNELECTED First Lady was ridiculous. And worse, it was expressive of monumental hubris, especially when she approached the US Congress with a "my way or the highway" attitude. If the whole debacle had anything to do with health care reform, that was why -- and the current situation bears little relevant similarity.

Posted by: reheiler | August 20, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

The analogy with the Clinton health plan failure and Republicans then winning a majority has a problem. Back then, most people couldn't even remember a time when Republicans had been the majority party, and might have believed their promises. This time, the Republicans were the majority recently, and people remember what they left behind -- economic collapse, wars, Katrina, etc.

Posted by: Jim19 | August 20, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Why does Ezra and the rest of the mainstream media keep talking about Republicans and bi-partisanship with regards to this health care imbroglio?

The dems have super majorities in the house. Fillibuster proof majority in the senate. Extremely liberal president in the executive branch. They don't need the GOP to pass this bill, and given their tone deafness on the issue, the strawmen arguments, the outright lying by this administration and it's cohorts in the legislature, and the fact that there is no real plan with no real substance and doesn't even address the stated goals of lowering costs and increasing access, no member of the GOP in their right mind would back such insanity.

Besides, wasn't it all you dems who were glibly bandying about the idea that the GOP was a dinosaur, and that they were no longer relevant?

The president should drop his "CYA bipartisanship" because no republican is stupid enough to not see right through this.

Posted by: theobnoxiousamerican | August 20, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

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