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The only thing Democrats need to fear is fear itself

brownclasp.JPGTo state some of the arguments of my earlier post more succinctly, the short-term danger of a Scott Brown victory is not Scott Brown in the Senate, or even 41 Republicans in the Senate. It's Democrats freaking out and abandoning the House bill. But on the merits, this is just absurd. If health-care reform was a good idea last week, it's a good idea next week -- and just as feasible.

The bill has left the Senate, can be passed by the House, and can be tweaked using the budget reconciliation process -- which is not some wild idea, given that Democrats initially considered running the whole bill through reconciliation. Nor is a Brown victory some national referendum on health-care reform: This is a special election in Massachusetts where a bad Democratic candidate has insulted Red Sox fans no less than twice. If anyone thinks Ted Kennedy would lose this election or vote to filibuster this bill, they've not said so aloud.

Finally, Brown opposes the national health-care reform bill even as he supports the virtually-identical Massachusetts health-care reform (the main difference between the two is that the national bill is more conservative, with more cost controls). His candidacy, as Jonathan Cohn points out, is evidence that health-care reform is popular once implemented, and becomes an article of faith even among Republicans.

That's not to downplay the downside for Democrats here: It's obviously bad for a political party to lose a safe Senate seat, particularly when it will be seen as proof that they're going to get crushed in the next election. But in the short-term, the Democrats' agenda is only doomed if they choose to doom it. And Nancy Pelosi, for one, has no intention of participating in that suicide. "Let's remove all doubt, we will have health care -- one way or another," Pelosi said in San Francisco. "[It’s] just a question about how we would proceed. But it doesn't mean we won't have a health care bill."

Photo credit: Robert F. Bukaty/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 19, 2010; 9:05 AM ET
 
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Comments

If Coakley loses like we expect, everyone's going to blame her, GOP obstructionism, or the progressive revolt against Obama. Maybe these things play a role. But the root of the problem is - once again - the filibuster. It creates a dynamic where elections aren't referendums on the efficacy of policy so much as they're randomly oscillating noise created by a system that minimizes the correlation between electoral results and enacted policy.

The problem is easiest to illustrate with an analogy. Imagine a light switch. You don't know if the "on" position is up or down. The switch works, but only ten percent of the time. And it has a timer - every time you flip it, the light doesn't change on or off for a random period of time. Maybe it's thirty seconds, maybe it's five minutes. Let's say you want to turn the light on. How long does it take you to figure out how to do that? Maybe you flip the switch up and down a couple times, and suddenly the light comes on. Is it because the switch is in the right position at the moment? Or will the light go off again in five minutes? And then the light does go off. Should you flip the switch again, or will it come back on by itself in a little while?

The problem isn't that the switch doesn't control the light - it does - it's that you don't know how the switch controls the light. And that's exactly analogous to the problem American voters face at the moment. They vote in a historically high number of Democrats, but nothing seems to happen. Is it because Democrats don't have good ideas for government? Or is it something else?

Unfortunately for the country, as well as the current Democratic caucus, voters are only faced with two choices. Ballots don't have a box labeled "change the government," they just have boxes labeled "D" and "R". So when choosing "D" doesn't get the results they want, most people decide to go ahead and check the "R" box. And of course, that doesn't do anything either, so eventually people will go back to the Ds.

Conceptually, the solution is simple: increase the feedback between elections and legislation. Kill the filibuster. When people elect a lot of politicians of a certain stripe, those politicians need to be able to pursue their policies of choice. Otherwise, people won't know whether they should vote for those politicians the next time around.

Posted by: WHSTCL | January 19, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

If Coakley loses like we expect, everyone's going to blame her, GOP obstructionism, or the progressive revolt against Obama. Maybe these things play a role. But the root of the problem is, once again, the filibuster. It creates a dynamic where elections aren't referendums on the efficacy of policy so much as they're oscillating noise created by a system that minimizes the correlation between electoral results and enacted policy.

The problem is easiest to illustrate with an analogy. Imagine a light switch. You don't know if the "on" position is up or down. The switch works, but only ten percent of the time. And it has a timer - every time you flip it, the light doesn't change on or off for a random period of time. Maybe it's thirty seconds, maybe it's five minutes. Let's say you want to turn the light on. How long does it take you to figure out how to do that? Maybe you flip the switch up and down a couple times, and suddenly the light comes on. Is it because the switch is in the right position at the moment? Or will the light go off again in five minutes? And then the light does go off. Should you flip the switch again, or will it come back on by itself in a little while?

The problem isn't that the switch doesn't control the light - it does - it's that you don't know how the switch controls the light. And that's exactly analogous to the problem American voters face at the moment. They vote in a historically high number of Democrats, but nothing seems to happen. Is it because Democrats don't have good ideas for government? Or is it something else?

Unfortunately for the country, as well as the current Democratic caucus, voters are only faced with two choices. Ballots don't have a box labeled "change the government," they just have boxes labeled "D" and "R". So when choosing "D" doesn't get the results they want, most people decide to go ahead and check the "R" box. And of course, that doesn't do anything either, so eventually people will go back to the Ds.

Conceptually, the solution is simple: increase the feedback between elections and legislation. Kill the filibuster. When people elect a lot of politicians of a certain stripe, those politicians need to be able to pursue their policies of choice. Otherwise, people won't know whether they should vote for those politicians the next time around.

Posted by: WHSTCL | January 19, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Whoops.

Posted by: WHSTCL | January 19, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

If Coakley loses and HCR is defeated only one person is to blame, Obama. The Gang of Six was his idea. He was the one that wanted a bipartisan bill and so wasted months during the summer trying to get a bipartisan finance committee bill.

But I'm not worried! Ezra is here to make sure the left gets the blame for another Obama mistake!

Posted by: endaround | January 19, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Pelosi deserves more credit than she gets. She'll get the House to pass the Senate bill if that's what needs to be done.

Posted by: mschol17 | January 19, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

We need change. As a culture we seem to be crying out for it. It's weird because generally we do not want to change and resist it when it comes (I think it's a yin yang thing). In any case when it gets bad enough we will affect change. Unfortunately as bad as it is, things are not yet bad enough. Most times in the past we got change by killing each other, wrecking the landscape then rising from the ashes. I'd like to think we can do it a better way but if our leaders cannot figure out how do it peacefully then it may happen that other way. The option of peacefully sliding into a "Blade Runner" culture is abhorent.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | January 19, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Some of us recognized this threat weeks ago. Better late than never, I guess.

For the record, I do have faith in Pelosi. But this may be too big a boulder to push uphill.

It's just a little ironic that Ezra "I haven't paid attention to the Massachusetts election" Klein, who spent the fall arguing in favor of the administration's 60-vote strategy over reconciliation, now is looking to reconciliation to save the day.

Posted by: scarlota | January 19, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

"If health-care reform was a good idea last week, it's a good idea next week -- and just as feasible."

If it was such a good idea last week, why did they have to bribe or exempt their own constituencies to pass it?

Posted by: bgmma50 | January 19, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Good quote from Speaker Pelosi:

"Let's remove all doubt, we will have health care -- one way or another."

YES!!

Posted by: carolerae48 | January 19, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, I have to give you credit for consistency, but not for good analysis. Scott Brown has explicitly cast the election as a referendum on Obamacare; this is probably the key to his strong showing. It's not a national referendum, but it's on the grounds that should be the most favorable (at least at a state level) for Obamacare advocates to win.

I think most of the voters take the converse of your proposition: If Obamacare was a bad idea last week, this week gives a chance to derail it.

Posted by: CTObserver | January 19, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

we finally get a president who is willing to tackle health care reform....aims at being a conciliatory and inclusive person, has to deal with anger on the right, anger on the left....lobbyists, insurance companies, behemoth pharmaceutical companies....and this is where we are today.
blaming obama.
if brown is elected, i think it will mean that many people have taken complete leave of their senses.
if health care reform, by any stretch of the imagination does not pass....i wont know what to think about the fate of things any longer.
if brown is elected, it will be like opening a pandora's box. i just cant believe it.
we had a golden moment. just like taking a small butterfly, and crushing it in your hand.
if brown wins, it is going to be a very sad day.


Posted by: jkaren | January 19, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

If Brown wins, Democrats will have the same Senate margin they had this time last year. And they'll have to get tougher and smarter if they want to get anything done. I don't believe even the Senate can be hamstrung forever by a minority IF the majority actually wants to do anything.

The Dems problem is that (Pelosi momentarily aside) it is not clear they'd rather do anything instead of posturing. No wonder there is an enthusiasm gap.

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 19, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

"If it was such a good idea last week, why did they have to bribe or exempt their own constituencies to pass it?"

Because their constituancies don't want it. Poll after poll after poll demonstrates that voters don't want this bill passed.

Say it ain't so.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | January 19, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Well, it wasn't a good bill last week, and it's not a good bill this week. Any bill that has to have the underhanded dealings that this has, is not a good bill.. Any bill that has to "buy" votes is not a good bill. Any bill that has to declare war on the lawmakers constituents, because the arrogant Congress and the Senate think they know what is best for us idiotic serfs, is not a good bill. Any bill that has to be voted on so expeditiously, and in the middle of the night, is not a good bill. Any bill that has to use every loophole and dirty politics weapon the libs can find, is not a good bill. KILL THE BILL!!

Posted by: CaPatriot | January 19, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I find it very difficult to understand why the Liberals seem so hell-bent on passing such an obviously flawed bill. Partisanship aside, how can Liberals "spin" the crisis urgency, the very very blatant bribes, the lack of transparency, etc. Why no tort reform, competition across state lines, bulk purchases of drugs ala VetAdmin, or purchases of drugs from Canada at 1/2 the cost? The MSM won't report that the Republican amendments to this bill included these issues, among others, and were pushed aside. Why have Big Pharma, the unions, insurance companies, etc contributed over 4:1 to the Dems in the last 2 election cycles? Why is no one in the MSM reporting that the universal health care program in Massachusetts is bankrupting the state and that the average waiting time for a primary care doctor (the usual entry level point) has gone from 9 days to 6 weeks? This Bill will dramatically affect 1/6 of our economy at a time of economic catastrophe. I agree that reform is needed. But this?

Posted by: apberusdisvet | January 19, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Coakley is a flawed candidate while Brown has a flawed ideology. So flawed Brown supports health care reform (MA style) while not supporting it (nationally). This guy is a joke and the people of Massachusetts get to decide who will represent them nationally come Tuesday.

Let's pass the HC reform and smooth out the rough edges later for we'll never get the "perfect" bill the first try.

Go Reform!!

Posted by: lexussalica | January 19, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Only a fool thinks that Republicans all over the nation favor Brown. Most have never heard of him. Those who have, tell me that he is too liberal. It is not "Republicans" but "Obamacare haters" (many Republicans included of course, but not exclusively and not for that reason.) who are rallying to Brown. There must be lots of regretfull Democrats in Mass. if a Republican gets elected there, of all places.

Posted by: Salverda | January 19, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

First the tea party`s, then New Jersey and Virginia, and now Massachusetts, and the MSM and the Democrats still don`t get it. America has had it with big government. Novemember is going to be such fun!

Posted by: CDNassif | January 19, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

My goodness do you have the gift of wrong sight all the time??

Try reading The Wall Street Journal who got it right for your information. That assumes you read anything but Mao and Marx! The American citizens have not changed their ideology! We are still a middle-middle right country.

The country is FOR Healthcare reform just not an extreme left platform but on a free market basis which has lead to 200+ years of commercial and social progress unequalled in the world. DEAL WITH TORT REFORM, PORTABILITY, OPEN UP THE STATES TO ALL INSURANCE COMPANIES, PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS, AND EQUITY FOR HOSPITALS PARTICULARLY THOSE ON THE BORDER DEALING WITH HOARDS OF ILLEGALS WITH NO INSURANCE and you will elicit conservative cheers across the land! THEN STAND ASIDE AND LET OUR FREE MARKET SYSTEM WORK.

The tingle of fear in the left is truly earned by the total misreading of what America was looking for in the 2008 election.

NOTHING IS QUITE SO AWEING AS AN AROUSED ELECTORATE IN A DEMOCRACY!

Posted by: PRRWRITER | January 19, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse


Just suppose for a minute that health care reform in the form wasn't such a good idea last week and the voters are letting the idiots in Congress know that through any electoral process they can. That would be a very novel idea for you. You must be part of the Progressive Elite who knows what is best for everyone else. Looks like it is a referendum on Congress, the President and people very much like you and you still don't get it. Very arrogant and elitist of you.

Posted by: rbloomer2 | January 19, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

What nonsense; of course this has national implications. Health reform as passed by the House is untenable in the Senate, and passage of the Senate version makes House liberals twitch in anger. It's do-over time if Brown is elected unless the Democrats really want to force something unwanted down our throats. If so, watch out in November...it'll make '94 look tame in comparison.

Why do liberals always believe that more of their claptrap is what everyone wants, when it's plainly obvious that citizens are saying slow down.

Posted by: ecrutle | January 19, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Mass will vote Coakley in, however the Dems need to show more intestinal fortitude and do what is right and stop compromising the ideas and the dreams of their supporters who put them into office. Stop trying to sell hamburger for sirloin, Give me what I ordered !

Posted by: wave06 | January 19, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Here's the key takeaway from the article...Brown opposes the national health-care reform bill even as he supports the virtually-identical Massachusetts health-care reform (the main difference between the two is that the national bill is more conservative, with more cost controls).

The national bill that Brown will oppose is a more conservative version of the bill he already supported.

I say the Dems go ahead with health reform regardless of the Mass outcome.

Posted by: chi-town | January 19, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Everyone knows that Erza Klein is a committed arch-leftist and sycophant for Obama. Win or lose in Mass., a new day has started and the Democrats are going to find that the new day not to their liking. Obama and his minions are the worst thing to happen to this country since the Vietnam War. Obama is a disaster and all those who vote for ObamaCare will be gone by 2012.

Posted by: walterndebby | January 19, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

This health care bill was a bad idea last week and it will be a bad idea next week.

I have informed both of my senators and my representative if my family is forced to purchase government mandated health care, fined if I don't or have my existing health care plan taxed, they can all start looking for new careers.

Obviously they (their new careers) won't be as lucrative as the ones they have now. I mean I'm sure the insurance, pharmaceutical, medical equipment mfrs and hospital industry won't be paying them off any more, but hey, the the ride on the gravy train had to come to an end.
We just can't afford that kind of representation any longer.

Posted by: dedreckon | January 19, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

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