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Cost-benefit election analysis

As various Democrats get down to the important business of using the election to justify their preexisting policy and political preferences (I'm looking at you, Evan Bayh, Third Way, PCCC...), it would be nice if we set some ground rules for the discussion.

So here's my proposal: When explaining what Democrats should've done differently, you also need to estimate how many seats would've been saved. Think Democrats shouldn't have done health-care reform? How many seats did they lose for it? Think they didn't talk enough about economic growth because they spent all their time on the safety net and global warming? All right, name the districts that would've stayed blue -- and the legislation that would and wouldn't have passed -- if they'd followed your advice.

I don't know exactly how many seats you'd need to lose to make covering 32 million Americans not worth the political cost, but if it's a discussion worth having, it's a discussion worth having with numbers.

By Ezra Klein  | November 3, 2010; 10:51 AM ET
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Another ground-rule should be "skin in the game". That goes especially for people like Bayh, who took his skin out of the game before writing his article.

Posted by: ctown_woody | November 3, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Hi Ezra,

I'll pass on your proposal, but I'll suggest that an "analysis" on the order you're suggesting really isn't necessary to explain the heavy losses. Although all politics is local, economic anxiety, anxiety over social change, a determined GOP base, and out-of-touch Dem leadership are overarching factors. People have been slammed by the recession, and things do not look like they're getting better. The enthusiasm gap is a proven killer for Dems. In walks the GOP, which has no solutions but can still campaign, especially with an astroturfed Tea Party firing it up for a midterm. The result is a wave that takes down Blue Dog and progressive alike. People are angry and they want change.

Sorry, has to be said: Dem leadership failed Politics 101 -- you have to kiss babies to win votes, not spit in the babies' face, even if you think the babies are ugly. To win, especially midterms, you can't afford to alienate your base. The "stop whining", "absolutely inexcusable," "should get drug-tested" approach by Gibbs and Co. won Andrew Sullivan's vote and precisely no one else's. Andrew Sullivan is not the Democratic base.

Also, I would encourage process liberals and Beltway Dem pundits (both of which camps you reside in) to think long and hard about just how much your choice to celebrate weak tea is good for the Democratic Party. You may just come to conclude that your own post-Prospect approach -- all too much typified, alas, by today's "even-handed" tut-tutting of low-powered grassroots liberals like the PCCC -- may be part of the problem.

Posted by: Former_Prospector | November 3, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

In NY20 Gibson really hammered Murphy on the healthcare bill, and that seemed to be the big issue. I overheard some seniors talking before the election and they seemed convinced that the bill slashed Medicare in order to fund everything else.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | November 3, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Ezra, you don't get to make those kind of rules. That's part of the problem, wanting to control how people think and what they say. It goes right along with the contempt for the voter who is too stupid to know what is good for them theme.

Besides, you never address cogent counter arguments anyway. I posted several times yesterday with specific cites and references how health care care was very low on the voters' agenda going into the election in 2008, and the references were from left or center leaning sources, never right. You ignored me, as is your right.

I also corrected you when you posted information from Lowrey about using numbers from a non-existent S&P 500 index to bolster your argument about divided government. You ignored that also, as is your right.

Myself and several others posted when you continually used the 140 billion dollar health care savings numbers that have already been revised, and which included Medicare savings cuts that were waived just weeks after the bill was passed. You ignored that too, as is your right.

So please don't think we have to comply with your requests to name specific districts, as is OUR right. Feel free to delete our posts if you wish, as is YOUR right!

Posted by: 54465446 | November 3, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I think that if the Democrats had taken a vote on the middle class tax cuts in mid September, they could have changed the narrative. The Republicans would have faced a very tough vote. It also would have shown the Democrats as being effective for a middle class agenda, supported by around 70% of the people. It's hard to say how many seats would have been saved, but I estimate it might have saved as many as 20 seats in the House.

Posted by: JimHannan | November 3, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Predictably, Democrats and liberal pundits are trying to blame their losses yesterday on bad luck with the economy. True, the efforts Democrats undertook to make our economy worse than it was certainly didn't help their case. But whether by purpose or oversight, they are not giving enough blame to their ill-conceived health care reform igniting the anger of many in the middle.

Democrat congressman John Boccieri won just two years ago 54% to 46%. Last night, he lost huge 54% to 40%. He lost 14% points in two years.

Boccieri, an otherwise moderate Democrat (pro-NRA) initially voted against the health care reform, but was one of the last-minute turncoats that gave Nancy Pelosi her big win on the ACA.

Now, I can't speak for all the other races Ezra, but that's one slam-dunk race you can put in the column of those lost solely due to the health care reform effort of progressives, that otherwise probably would have been held in the Democrats camp if they had focused on fixing the economy.

Posted by: dbw1 | November 3, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Just go back to the old Clinton line, "it's the economy, stupid." For whatever reason, Pres. Obama didn't push jobs programs which would have directly brought down the unemployment rate. Instead he chose to emphasize indirect means such as tax incentives and state/local aid. It's unfortunate that 'big government' became the bogeyman in the 2010 election when 'big government' badly implemented was the real problem.

Posted by: tuber | November 3, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Does anybody seriously believe that the present medical system (hospitals, doctors, clinics,nurses) can serve the needs of 33 million new patients ?

And why, given the large number of people who will benefit from the new legislation, why are they not rallying behind the President ? Where have they been over the last year ?
Bernard Chasan

Posted by: gosha246 | November 3, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

If you need specific districts/races, the economy isn't that great in Hawaii with tourism still not fully recovered. The state unemployment rate feels artificially low. But there is the sense that the economy is a sukosh better than on the mainland and that continued strong federal government involvement in the state is key. Hawaii voted out the incumbent Republican congressman (respectable, 'real deal,' well-funded politician) who pretty much ran on the national GOP platform. The other two Democrat incumbents up for re-election won by 50 percentage point margins.

Posted by: tuber | November 3, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

IMO, where the Dems went seriously wrong was in messaging. The let the right define the issues and lacked message control. Obama had a chance to change the narrative and should have used every agency head, every move forward to take control of that narrative. To their credit, history will look very favorably on the most productive Congress in decades. To their discredit, no one recognizes that except Rachel Maddow.

Some of the failings were dumb process issues, for example not sending a tax refund check like Bush did. Think about that. Obama and the Dems pass the biggest middle class tax cut ever, and no one knows it, because they didn't get a check, which they would have to sign and deposit.

Nearly every other mistake was in compromising with the GOP and blue dogs, not in failing to compromise more. The "enthusiasm gap" was caused by the Dems taking their base for granted.

Nonetheless, for those who want to rethink what we accomplished in the last 21 months, do watch the "Political Capital" segment on Rachel's show. Made me feel a lot better about the way the Dems spent the political capital rather than staying in campaign mode. The video is HERE:

Posted by: GreenDreams | November 3, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse


Here's another way to look at it, and feel free to dispute my figures if you find better ones.

As I understand it, the HCR will cover 30 million previously uninsured Americans by 2014. Some like those who are adult children of the already insured are covered as of October. I coudn't find that estimated number in a hurry. That was the big push behind HCR, correct? That was why HCR was more important to do than work more on the economy.

Ok contrast that number with the roughly 15 million people currently unemployed and the 9 million "involuntary part-time workers" as economists use the term. These are about 25-26 million people who currently have no health insurance mostly because of a bad economy.

Why was getting health care to the first group in the long term more important than getting a shot at health care to the latter group in the short term by working more on jobs?

Posted by: 54465446 | November 3, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

greendreams wrote:

"Some of the failings were dumb process issues, for example not sending a tax refund check like Bush did. Think about that. Obama and the Dems pass the biggest middle class tax cut ever, and no one knows it, because they didn't get a check, which they would have to sign and deposit."

Also forgot to add that the tax cut was dwarfed by the increase from failure to extend the Bush tax cuts, which, ironically enough, sources now say the administration and Dems in congress are willing to do, six months too late.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 3, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse


It's not just covering 32 million people (and shaving trillions from deficits), it's covering tens of millions for perhaps a very long time, or permanently, and taking that constant harrowing risk away from middle class families.

And here's the key issue: can the universal health insurance bill survive?

Yes, it's safe now, with an Obama veto, but what can we do to make sure there's no President Palin in 2012 signing it's repeal before it really even goes into effect (which happens in 2014)?

It's very important Democrats think about this and make it a very high strategic priority, because they can't depend on the filibuster to save them. One of the biggest problems with the filibuster is that the Republicans will fight dirty with no hesitation and will restrict or threaten to end the filibuster to get what they want. When has the filibuster ever been applied to their tax cuts for the rich? Maintaining the presidency in 2012 is crucial to healthcare's survival.

If we do keep the Oval Office, then healthcare is safe until 2016. That will allow two years of extremely powerful try-and-see, that will make it far harder for the Republicans to then abolish it.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | November 3, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse


actually come 2016 healthcare costs and rates will be sky high with very little in the way of true cost controls on the system. The only cost controls will be subsidies that buffer us from feeling the costs (until we get the bill and wonder why the deficit is so high). And come 2018 when people start getting excise taxed I'm thinking people will realize what a mess this is. To that end there are people out there that have no ability to legally avoid the excise tax. Costs are going up so high so quick that even at the lowest possible benefit allowed by law the threshold for older Americans (say 50-64) will be well over the excise tax figure.

Those of you that think this is going to be "MORE" popular than less are really kidding yourselves and aren't think more than one step in front of yourselves.

Posted by: visionbrkr | November 3, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure if requiring people to pull numbers out of their ass will really add much to the debate. Personally I think if Obama had done everything my way Democrats would currently hold every elected office in the nation. Top that.

Posted by: Alex_Olivares | November 3, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse


How many of those 32 Million are illegal aliens?

Also, if someone has to buy health insurance, they can buy it now - so nothing really has changed for them.

>>>>>> it's not just about the seats - it is about losing control of the House - so how much other legislation has been sacrificed? The democrats smashed their entire party


Posted by: MessageMachine | November 3, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

One has to wonder why, exactly, are these people even Democrats. When, exactly, should health care reform have been pursued, and when exactly, would there have been the votes to accomplish it. And this whole idea that somehow you cannot both pursue job creation legislation and health care reform at the same time says far more about our politicians than about the policies. Exactly what would this magic additional job creation legislation have been anyway? It would have required increasing the deficit, at least temporarily, something which appears to be anathema to these critics. And why didn't they propose it and pass it when they had the power to do so? These people seem to have no actual understanding of economic policy and never seem to get that all of this says much more about their own shallowness than about the policies. Apparently, policies should only be pursued if they will help you win the next election. The fact that you might pursue the right policies and lose the next election but then win the election after that when people see that your policies have really worked is apparently not good enough. Obama has made mistakes (surprise, surprise being that he is human), but for these people his biggest mistake is apparently that he took governing seriously and thought that the Democrats in Congress should pass legislation they said they would pass if elected to help solve a serious national problem. And what is this crap about "misinterpreting the mandate". The mandate of every election is exactly the same - it is the mandate to govern wisely in the public interest. Nowhere is it claimed by these alleged Democrats that the policies pursued were unwise as a matter of public policy. No, all that matters is that they might have been temporarily unwise for the private political interest of certain members of Congress. Being a member of Congress is not an entitlement, it is a privilege bestowed by we, the people. The congressperson who best epitomizes his job in this election is Tom Perriello. He went to Congress, he voted as he said he would vote for the laws that he thought best for the country even though he represented a McCain majority district where those votes might cost him re-election in a midterm, and he said why and campaigned accordingly, and he probably overachieved in this midterm.

Posted by: gregspolitics | November 3, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse


Well written post. You have an almost relgious faith in something we have not yet seen. Myself, and some of the other posters like to work in a world of facts and figures that have to add up.

" When, exactly, should health care reform have been pursued, and when exactly, would there have been the votes to accomplish it. And this whole idea that somehow you cannot both pursue job creation legislation and health care reform at the same time says far more about our politicians than about the policies"

You would not know it now, but healthcare was not anyone's top priority in 2008. I did a post yesterday where I cited numerous articles from left or center leaning publications during the campaign and exit polling the night of the election to show that there was no indication that this giant legislation would become the centerpiece of the administration. The exit polling from the election night placed HCR at 8%, tied with terrorism as the percent of the electorate who considered that was the most important issue.

Politics of course being the art of the possible, HCR should have been dumped as being untimely in comparison to other things. As I pointed out above, there are already 25 million Americans without health care due to lack of employment. If we had concentrated on putting them back to work, we would have solved a problem almost equal to those permanently uninsured.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 3, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

" don't know exactly how many seats you'd need to lose to make covering 32 million Americans not worth the political cost, but if it's a discussion worth having, it's a discussion worth having with numbers."

This is the most reasonable argument I've seen this week. Which, of course, means, that it will be completely ignored. Especially by those who claim to want the country like a business, where--in magical libertarian land--cost-benefit calculations spread like fairy dust. Ironic that.

And no, I'm not in a position to claim that Democrats could have done X, Y, or Z to hold the House. But you should make Nate Silver do it and explain his methodology. It really would be the only way to make this discussion worth having.

Posted by: slag | November 3, 2010 10:25 PM | Report abuse

Those 30+ million aren't covered yet and won't be for years to come. Meanwhile 25 million are either out of work or forced part-time. Misplaced priorities cost the election.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 3, 2010 11:10 PM | Report abuse

As usual, Ezra considers only two options: those of the right, and those of the center. Those of us on the left who advocated including the public option (incredibly popular in polls, btw) were ignored. And even now, Ezra can't seem to conceive that moving left would have been, and would now be, not only beneficial to the nation, but to the Democratic Party as well.

Posted by: stonedone | November 4, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

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