Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Chait’s Healthcare Polyannaism

Yesterday I commented on Jon Chait’s arguments that ObamaCare still can and should pass a Democratically controlled congress. Today I want to address his argument that it’s more likely than not that it will pass.

Chait gives five general reasons for thinking that’s the case. I have nothing much to say about the first four. Chait thinks that failure to pass ObamaCare at this late date will: (1) make Democrats look like a bunch of losers; while (2) demoralizing base voters who Democrats desperately need to keep enthused; thereby (3) depriving Democrats of the benefits of ObamaCare’s likely surge in popularity after it passes; at a time when (4) Republicans and conservative Democrats lack the votes to stop passage. Maybe so.

Here I want to focus on Chait’s fifth reason (my emphasis):

“Democrats understand that passing a bill would represent a monumental achievement. That fact is important to understand their behavior to date. Why did every Democratic Senator vote for a bill, while 40 House Democrats voted no last summer? Not because the Senate caucus is more liberal than its House counterpart. It's because every Democratic senator needed to vote yes in order for the bill to survive. Opposing the bill becomes very difficult when that vote can decisively block an historic reform.”
I don’t doubt that the last, italicized sentence holds for those Democratic congressmen who are doctrinaire liberals. Straight-laced liberals have been telling themselves for 70 years that it’s their historic mission to socialize the costs and risks associated with the healthcare delivery system. So it’s probably true that people like Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman won’t be able to resist taking the final step to realize a longstanding political objective even if it costs them control of the House. The overriding urgency of healthcare reform is part of their ideological DNA.

But could that be true of a majority of Democratic House members? I can’t help recalling how Obama prefaced his healthcare address to a joint session of Congress last fall by describing how, at the beginning of each of the last twenty-seven Congresses, John Dingell, Jr. has resubmitted the healthcare bill that his father regularly submitted before him when he occupied the same seat. It was touching to see the satisfied expression of an 83-year-old, serving his 55th year in congress, in a seat that the Dingells have held for 77 years, contemplating the fulfillment of a 70-year-old dream.

But could it really be the case many Democrats in their thirties and forties are willing to sacrifice their political future to the dream of a man too old to be their father? If so, that would say something remarkable about the ideological constancy of the Democratic Party—something that would never even have been imagined for most of the younger Dingell’s congressional career, much less his father’s. To see how remarkable, imagine that a majority of congressional Republicans were willing to jeopardize their political careers by voting for an unpopular measure just because its urgency was an article of faith among Robert Taft conservatives.

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