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You don't win elections by failing to govern

Republicans have been very generous recently in offering House Democrats strategic advice in advance of the 2010 election. But Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who were around in 1994, remember what happened last time Democrats took the GOP's advice and let their signature health-care effort perish before the election.

What followed was a disastrous midterm for Democrats—losses of 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate. Heading into that election season, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, described the Democrats’ condition bluntly: “Imagine it’s October, and the Democrats are going to get up and make the following case: 'We’ve run the House for 40 years, we’ve run the Senate for eight years, we have the White House, and the Republicans are so much more clever than we are that they’ve obstructed us. We need you to elect more dumb Democrats so we can overcome those clever Republicans.'” Conservative Democratic Senator John Breaux, of Louisiana, echoed that point on health policy, saying, “We can blame the Republicans for filibustering, but we have the responsibility to govern.”

To be sure, there were many reasons for Democrats’ massive losses in 1994, including scandals and angry gun owners. But the failure to fulfill their responsibility for governing contributed mightily to the debacle. That was the conclusion of pollsters from both parties in the aftermath of the November contests. Two weeks after the election, Republican pollster Bill McInturff found that “one of the most important predicates for Republican success was not having health care pass.” He noted that the collapse of the plan reinforced voters’ belief that Washington was in a dysfunctional state of gridlock. At the same time, Democratic pollster Mike Donilon, who worked on the losing campaign of Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, said he believed that Wofford would have won had health reform passed.

I'd just add that it's actually worse than all that. Those 54 Democrats who lost their seats did not have a historic accomplishment to show for their service. They had not provided health care to all Americans. They had let costs continue to explode, and families continue to suffer, and America's most pressing economic problem continue to worsen. It's one thing to lose reelection having done an enormous service to your country. It's a whole other to lose because you failed to do something difficult that the country needed done.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 16, 2010; 8:08 AM ET
 
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Comments

The Dems lost 54 seats in '94 because they failed to pass the health care bill? Really? I never knew that. Thanks!

Posted by: ostap666 | March 16, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

Dems were also routed in 1994 partly due to the 94 tax raises, which in my view were partly responsible in helping to balance the budget.

Pelosi is apparently going to use deem and pass to get HCR enacted. This means the Dems would lose and up or down vote and are thus avoiding it. In my view, this would deligitimize the enactment of HCR although the tactic may be legal. If this is all true, then the Dems are incompetent and have proven themselves unable to govern. And given that the GOP is too stupid and dangerous to govern, that means we are in big trouble.

Posted by: Lomillialor | March 16, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

As long as the bill passes, who cares how it passes?

Republicans have long understood that it's results that matter, not process. America does NOT care how they passed the bill, just that they passed it.

All this talk about procedural moves is just a distraction used by those who are actually paying attention (a very, very small minority of us) as another excuse to justify their view of "I like it, it should pass" or "I don't like it, it shouldn't pass".

Posted by: JERiv | March 16, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

You also need to remember that '94 was the year when republican party started their game-changing marketing. Gingrich sent video tapes to 100 different new republican candidates on how to run a campaign. This was also the era of really using marketing words (Frank Luntz) rather than real words for things. There were daily faxes to prominent republicans (including Limbaugh) which had the message of the day and the words to use.

And republicans also had 'The Contract With America'. This is what they would do when they came into office. It was mostly fluff, but it was nice sounding fluff.

I don't see anything that innovative in the current republican party. They're using the same methods as '94 - only not as well.

Posted by: yerfdogyrag | March 16, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

"Reconciliation" and "Deem and Pass" are adding to the cynicism that the American people have relating to the government in Washington.

Then the unfunded mandates that are being foisted off on the States will come to pass in the near future.

This bill will be the albatross around the necks of the Democratic Party that will lead to it's following in the footsteps of the Whig Party and the No-Nothing Party.

Posted by: mwhoke | March 16, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Yes, "who cares" how is passes? If Pelosi simply states that it passed in secret and to trust her about it, I'm sure that wouldn't be challenged in Court either. Seriously though the "political" calculation is whether more base voters will simply stay home on Election Day (we know they won't vote GOP) than turnout to protest Obamacare. The Dems could lose LESS of their Blue Dog members by not ramming this bill through. How many "safe" seats would they really lose? That's the real question.

Posted by: JakeD | March 16, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

"To be sure, there were many reasons for Democrats’ massive losses in 1994, including scandals and angry gun owners."

Oh, those angry white men and their temper tantrums. Sheesh.

Repeat after me: Contract for America. Newt Gingrich helped nationalize the mid-term campaign with a pledge of ten conservative initiatives they would tackle, if they got elected. And they won handily, and to the great surprise of many pundits and news people. I remember going to bed that night, the elections mostly "called" for the Democrats. So imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning.

It's nationalizing the election that helped the Republicans the most. It's something Democrats are in a better position to do right now, frankly, and the Republicans can nationalize an election simply around obstruction. I expect they will make gains, but I'm dubious that these mid-terms will be like 1994.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 16, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

@yerfdogyrag: "This was also the era of really using marketing words (Frank Luntz) rather than real words for things. There were daily faxes to prominent republicans (including Limbaugh) which had the message of the day and the words to use."

If that's what made the difference, the Democrats shouldn't ever lost an election. James Carville, James Begala, George Lackoff? These names ring any bells? That sort of strategic marketing has been going on in politics for almost as long as there has been politics. It was nationalizing the election (the Gingrich strategy) that the Democrats weren't prepared for, and it cost them. It wasn't just that Clinton had attempted healthcare reform, but how he had gone about it ("secret meetings! oooh, scary!") plus the whole "gays in the military" and gun control advocacy--the Clinton administration (and scandals in congress) gave the Republicans a lot of campaign on and against.

This is not 1994. I may be wrong, but I expect that a lot of the great expectations for Republican victories in the house and senate may be a tad exaggerated. The Republicans show no sign of nationalizing the elections this time around. There's not an appealing agenda to vote for, if you are an independent or conservative.

And I meant to say, earlier, that "the Republicans *can't* nationalize an election around obstruction. It's not enough.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 16, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

The republican gains will come more in the cycles after 2010, when the unspeakable suffering of the people under the new and inevitable rationing of care -- not to mention the terrible bureaucratic snafus and messes that must occur during the healthcare takeover -- will be more widely known. Oh, you are saying that the million plus government healthcare administrators will pull off a smooth takeover?

Posted by: truck1 | March 16, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

@mwhoke: All you need now is a sign around your neck that reads "The End Is Coming (for the Democratic Party)" and a street corner.

Seriously. If the Bush years (Iraq, huge deficit, horribly expensive unfunded bills, multiple uses of (gasp!) "reconciliation", Katrina, etc.) didn't totally break the Republican party, what in the world makes you think this one bill will break the Democrats? Other than wishful thinking, that is...

You sound like a true believer who continuously drinks the cool-aid:

"It is because it is, and so it shall be, and therefore it shall come to pass! As it is written in the Gospels of Fox, Beck, Limbaugh, and Hannity. Amen." :-)

Posted by: JERiv | March 16, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

@mwhoke: "This bill will be the albatross around the necks of the Democratic Party that will lead to it's following in the footsteps of the Whig Party and the No-Nothing Party."

Um, no. If the Democrats survived McGovern and Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson, if they survived Bill Clinton's much more progressive attempt at healthcare and "don't ask, don't tell" and renting out the Lincoln bedroom to donors and "no controlling legal authority" and on and on . . . if they not only survived, but thrived, then this bill won't hurt them. They may lose seats, but they'll gain them back.

Let's say the Republicans gain control of the house and the senate over the next couple of election cycles. Their margins will almost certainly be narrower, and the Democrats will regroup, come up with new strategies, and come back in a big way. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that Republicans had the Whitehouse and both chambers. And now, they have neither.

The idea that one party or the other is going to "dry up and blow away" is wishful thinking. It's not going to happen. The Republicans aren't going to spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness or become a permanent (and constantly shrinking) minority party, despite the frequent, almost word-for-word verbatim predictions of left-leaning Pundits following the 2008 election. Similarly, the Republicans aren't about to sweep the Democrats away into historical obscurity. I'm 40 years old, and I fully expect to see a few more (non-Obama) Democrat presidents in my life time, as well as watch control of the house and senate switch back and forth.

A minor dip in the polls and the Scott Brown victory don't spell the end of the Democrats, as pleasant a thought as that might be.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 16, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Anyway, where did all the doomsayers about the HCR bill come out of? Someone kick a rock out there, and they all crawled out?

It's amazing how in the past several days/weeks, they've come here in force to protest HCR. It's as if they suddenly realize that Democrats are about to pass a major, major reform bill to the Health Care system, and are suddenly deeply concerned about the impact it will have to Republican election prospectes in November... Hmm...

Are you guys also offering helpful advice to Democratic congressmen (for whom you'd never vote, anyway) about abandoning this "trojan horse" for socialism, fasc-ism, nazi-ism, fatal-ism, depress-ism, and etc-ism?

So kind of you. So helpful. So nice. :-)

Posted by: JERiv | March 16, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I was a Republican for almost my entire adult life, but am now an Independant. I believe Obama is on the right track with health reform; we have to have something to start with. If the bill passes, we can always amend it; add to it; and make it better.

However, I also believe the current members of the House and Senate have lost touch with reality. They only seem to represent big business and special interest groups nowdays; not the people who elected them.

After all, it's big business and special interest groups that financed their campaigns, and will continue to do so, as long as the politician votes for or against whatever THEY want.

It's time to make some changes in the House and Senate. Vote the incumbents out of office--all of them!

Posted by: bwshook1 | March 16, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

I know you weren't old enough to dress yourself in 1994 Ezra, but seriously, there is no way anyone can take this particular narrative seriously. Democrats did not get swept out of power in '94 because they failed to pass HillaryCare - they were swept out because they were going to vote for it.

Posted by: novalfter | March 16, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Ezra and others - You may want to consider the possibility that passing legislation that less than 50% of the public supports will make the Dems less popular, not more popular. Strong opposition to HC reform runs at double the level as strong support.

Just saying that doing something unpopular usually doesn't make someone more popular. Sometimes the simple explanation is the correct one.

Posted by: mbp3 | March 16, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

"They had not provided health care to all Americans. They had let costs continue to explode, and families continue to suffer, and America's most pressing economic problem continue to worsen."

All of which will be true now as well, whether or not they pass the bill. But carry on.

Posted by: redscott | March 16, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Even a hack like you doesn't believe this.

Posted by: obrier2 | March 16, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

IF THIS HEALTHCARE BILL IS SO GREAT WAY DOESN'T IT INCLUDE OUR PRESIDENT HIS FAMILY,SENATORS,CONGRESS AND THEIR FAMILIES??? THEY ARE OFFERING US THIRD WORLD-EUROPEAN HEALTHCARE WHILE THEY WILL CONTINUE WITH THE BEST CARE MONEY CAN BUY; WITH OUR MONEY!

Posted by: rancher2 | March 16, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Folks, you keep forgetting a few things:

1) Public at large has VERY short memories. What's happening in November is what will impact the November elections.

2) Once it's passed, it's the law. Like it or not, more than likely by November, it won't motivate you to kick Democrats out. Other things might, but I doubt this will. Why? Because a campaign to repeal items like "elimination of pre-existing conditions" will fail. Utterly.

Anyway, good luck with the predictions. Who knows if they'll pass the bill, and what effect it will truly have in Nov. The only thing that's certain is that if the bill does not pass, partisan democrats will be demoralized. That's about it.

Posted by: JERiv | March 16, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

IF THIS HEALTHCARE BILL IS SO GREAT WAY DOESN'T IT INCLUDE OUR PRESIDENT HIS FAMILY,SENATORS,CONGRESS AND THEIR FAMILIES??? THEY ARE OFFERING US THIRD WORLD-EUROPEAN HEALTHCARE WHILE THEY WILL CONTINUE WITH THE BEST CARE MONEY CAN BUY; WITH OUR MONEY!

Posted by: rancher2 | March 16, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Dems will be punished either way but the assumption that they have more to lose from failing to pass a bill may be questioned. As the progressive wing is disappointed with the Senate bill it will not be motivated to turn out come election day either way. However opponents of the bill, which polls show are more numerous and intense in their feelings, will turn out in larger numbers if the bill passes. They'll feel that more is at stake.z

Posted by: tbass1 | March 16, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

@rancher2: It does include them.

Do you actually read/listen to anything other than Fox or Limbaugh?

You, sir, have just identified yourself as severly misinformed. Common malaise nowadays. It can be treated with several doses of independent thought, coupled with an extended period of isolation from hyper-partisan ultra-conservative news outlets.

Btw, ALL CAPS is a dead givaway for a hyper-partisan hack. Try to not use them.

Posted by: JERiv | March 16, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

I'm a long-standing Democrat--more than 40 years! I'm embarrassed to watch a 59-vote majority in the Senate cower because they do not have a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority. We Democrats have control Congress and the White House. Yet we FAIL TO GOVERN. We won on a "change" platform, but cower in the face of a minority, and a fickle public that wants to talk about change, but rejects it when it is imminent. Pogo was right. WE are the enemy. We elect a government and will not let it govern. My Canadian friends in Ottawa were right when they told me the same thing during a political-science convention there in 1980. Our own elected majority lacks cohesion and allows a vocal minority to rule. That is NOT democracy.

Posted by: bayanjim | March 16, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Ezra:
"It's one thing to lose re-election having done an enormous service to your country. It's a whole other to lose because you failed to do something difficult that the country needed done."
It's about time someone said the truth about these "representatives." And, it burns my butt that others are not sayng the same. We sent these people to Washington for the benefit of the people not to champion their next re-election. If they lose, so be it. Get the job done, do what's right.
Jon

Posted by: jtisch | March 16, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, in 6 months you will be writing: You Don't Win Elections By Cramming Legislation Down American Citizens Throats. So, Ezra, I look forward to reading your column in the Fall when all the political bribery, corruption, and arrogance come home to roost. You see, Ezra, in this country, neither the Republican nor Democratic Parties can impact my opinion on healthcare. I will express my opinion during midterm elections and the next Presidential election. And Ezra, God help those who vote yes are in even remotely close to moderate districts. Because they will be on the unemployment line very soon. Yep, justice will be swift and long lasting; a reaffirmation of the power of the people to determine who will and will not represent their interests in Washington. Good luck, Ezra. Might want to start working on that article.

Posted by: donchew1 | March 16, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

And thank God the Republicans swept congress in '94 and immediately set about fixing health care. Oh, wait...

Posted by: jeirvine | March 16, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I think you're unfair to the 93-4 Dems and Clinton. They did pass Clinton's budget/tax increase, which we Dems credit for the prosperity of the 90's. And they (some of them) did pass NAFTA, which most Dems seem to disown, but it's certainly historic. The flailing about getting votes for health care reform reminds me of the "war room" efforts of the Clintons for those two bills.

Posted by: bharshaw | March 16, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

You know, WaPo should just get rid of these comments sections altogether, at least for the time being. It's just freepers and such flooding the whole place with GOP talking points. What a waste of space.

Posted by: menaman | March 17, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

"It's one thing to lose reelection having done an enormous service to your country. It's a whole other to lose because you failed to do something difficult that the country needed done."

Here, let me help you with that.

It's one thing to lose reelection, having created an enormous entitlement program that will bankrupt the country, and put hundreds of thousands of health insurance workers in the unemployment line. It's a whole other thing to lose because the opposing party obeyed the will of the American people and stopped you from doing it.

There, Ezra. Now it makes a lot more sense.

Posted by: JimDavisNewsmax | March 18, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

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