Monday, March 15, 2010

Action for Action's Sake

This National Journal poll of anonymous Capitol Hill lawmakers reveals an interesting trend: members of both parties believe that passing Obamacare will help them in November! 77% of the Democrats believe that passage will help them electorally. Michael G. Franc wonders if some of them are merely mouthing the party line, but he suspects that they believe much of what they're saying.

If so, it seems that many Democrats have fallen prey to the Washington prejudice of doing something and the Washington assumption that the public will applaud action (even action they oppose) instead of inaction. Here are the sample responses:

Help a lot

"It would regain a lot of the energy in our own base. Otherwise, we will be in deep trouble."

"We will have achieved something important."

"The Democrats need to get something passed. Otherwise, they will have fallen victim to nothing more than fear-driven attacks."

"It will help a lot of people, show that Democrats can act, and get the 'sausage-making' off the news."

"If it passes, people see it's not the end of the world and learn more about its benefits. The more they know about it, the more supportive they are. Best of all, we can begin talking about something else."

"It will help a lot to show that [President Obama] can make Washington work. But the name of the game in November will be the economy -- just like it always is."

"It's getting something done, stupid."

Help a little

"Despite a Republican and insurance industry campaign to bring reform to its knees, I still think many Americans will give Democrats credit for bringing much-needed change."

"Democrats have to deliver. We are too far into this."

"Passage means a Rose Garden signing ceremony and some immediate benefits. Failure to pass means incompetence despite our large majorities."

"That's the best-case scenario. Even many Democrats opposed to the health care bill realize it needs to be settled and put behind us."

I think many Democrats overestimate the PR value of a "Rose Garden signing ceremony." While the Washington elite may be obsessed with questions of party management, the public is much more concerned about things like the actual effects of a bill. After all, would voters be happier with a highway department that actively destroyed roads (at least it can do something!) or one that may not always be the best at keeping roads in good shape?

A few rejoinders to these Democratic musings:
  • It is not this bill or no bill. A moderate, targeted bill, which Obama and co. could talk up as a "generational" achievement, could still be passed.
  • This issue can be "settled" in more ways that just kowtowing to the Speaker's wishes. Nothing is stopping Democrats from talking about health-care reform (nothing, that is, other than the Democrats themselves).
  • "The base" only gets you so far. Massachusetts has one of the biggest, most connected Democratic "bases" in the nation. Did that base get Martha Coakley into the Senate?
  • Moderates might find passage of this bill an even heavier anchor around their ankles than the failure of this bill.
The Speaker and the president have, it seems, been somewhat successful in creating a legislative horizon, in which the fate of "health-care reform" turns upon the passage of whatever flavor of legislation party leaders have currently come up with. Buying into this myth may have negative political consequences for Democrats and unfortunate public consequences for our nation.

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