The Magazine

The Real Lessons of 1994

Voters punished Democrats for Hillarycare. They'll do the same for Obamacare.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By ANDY WICKERSHAM and JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Democratic senators and congressmen have been trying to convince each other, particularly their more conservative colleagues, that they'll all be better off in the 2010 elections--and will avoid a repeat of their 1994 debacle--if they pass Obama-care. Bill Clinton, half of the central duo in the failed attempt to pass Hillarycare in 1994, recently addressed Senate Democrats and sang the party-line tune. Speaking to reporters afterward, Clinton said, "I think it is good politics to pass this and to pass it as soon as they can. .  .  . The worst thing to do is nothing."

But the evidence cuts the other way. Democrats did indeed get slaughtered in 1994--with Republicans taking over the House for the first time since the Truman administration--but it wasn't because they failed to pass Hil-lary-care. It was because they tried.

It's true, there were no formal votes on a bill, so there was no chance for Democratic members to distance themselves officially from the plan. Nevertheless, voters knew that it was the more conservative Democrats (with the GOP, then as now the minority party, urging them on) who killed the bill--over their more liberal colleagues' objections.

So who paid the price in 1994? Was it the typical Democrats, for trying to pass Hillarycare or their more conservative colleagues for stopping it?

The question is timely, for Americans' notion of what their health care would be like under Obamacare is strikingly similar to what they thought it would be like under Hillarycare. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that, by 37 to 19 percent, Americans think the quality of their health care would get worse, rather than better, under Obamacare. The same poll's nearly identical question about Hillarycare in 1994 also showed that Americans thought the quality of their health care would get worse, by 38 to 20 percent.

What, then, really happened to Democrats in the 1994 election? We took liberal/conservative ratings from the American Conservative Union and divided congressional Democrats into ideological thirds: most conservative, typical, and most liberal. We then examined how each group of Democrats fared in seeking reelection in the wake of Hillarycare and compared those results with the reelection bids of Democrats in the congressional elections of the last 20 years.

The conclusions are clear, and they defy the notion that the worst thing that Democrats could do is nothing. In the other nine elections over the past 20 years, the typical (middle-third) Democrats have done far better than the more conservative Democrats. In fact, conservative Democrats have lost 67 percent more often than their party's typical members. In 1994, that turned around completely: That year, typical Democrats lost 56 percent more often than their more conservative colleagues.

In other words: Voters did punish Democrats for trying to pass Hillarycare, but they didn't punish them evenly--and they certainly didn't punish them for failing to pass it. Instead, voters went comparatively easy on the more conservative Democrats who opposed it.

Conservative Democrats generally do worse than their colleagues in seeking reelection because they usually run in contested districts that either party can realistically win. They are often running on Republican--or at least highly disputed--turf. Conversely, the most liberal Democrats usually run in Democratic strongholds. Over the last two decades--apart from 1994--more conservative Democrats have been twice as apt to lose as other members of their party. Given the districts or states in which they run, this is not at all surprising. But what is surprising is this: In 1994, the more conservative Democrats erased that disadvantage.

In 1994, the more conservative third of Democrats ran in states where the average margin of victory for President Clinton had been only 1.6 percentage points (compared to 5.6 percentage points nationally). Meanwhile, the other two-thirds of Democrats ran in states where Clinton's average margin of victory had been 7.7 percentage points. Despite the far greater challenge they faced in running on much less friendly soil, the more conservative Democrats won every bit as often in 1994 as other Democrats did--the only time in the past 20 years that they were able to pull off this improbable result.