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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
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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.

But what is most striking is how much better the conservative third did than the typical Democrats of the middle third. Compared with the more conservative Democrats, typical Democrats ran twice as often in the six most consistently Democratic states (those Democrats won by 10 percentage points or more in each of the past five presidential elections) and barely half as often in GOP states (those the GOP won in most of those elections). Despite this huge advantage in voter composition, they not only failed to win more often, they lost 56 percent more often.

Swing-voters apparently (and rightly) blamed typical Democrats for advancing Hillarycare. Where independent voters were not really decisive--such as in the most liberal members' districts--this effect wasn't strongly felt. But where independents held sway, typical Democrats felt their wrath. And in 1994, the voters did this without the benefit of being able to consult concrete votes on the proposed health care legislation. They won't be similarly handicapped in 2010.

In June of this year, a Fox News poll showed that (among those who had an opinion on the matter) 73 percent of independents approved of President Obama's job performance. After five months of debate over Obama's health care overhaul, the same poll now shows that only 40 percent of independents approve of his job performance.

If Democrats want to go on an electoral suicide mission in the face of clear public opposition and try to pass a nation-changing piece of legislation by a party-line vote (both Social Security and Medicare were passed by majorities of both parties in at least one congressional chamber), they should consider one further fact. The proposed legislation won't take effect quickly, much of it not until 2014. Before then, we'll vote in two national elections. The American people would not only be able to vote out members who disregard their wishes and pass legislation they don't want. Through the election of other members, they would be able to repeal that legislation.

In the wake of the Hillarycare debate in 1994, voters harshly punished typical Democratic members. As the calendar approaches 2010, many Democratic members face a potentially career-defining choice that will determine whether their constituents will regard them as being among the more conservative members of their party, or among its typical members. If 1994 is any guide, this determination could well decide their fate. The question for such Democratic members is this: Are you willing to die charging a hill that may well be retaken in 2010 and 2012 in your absence?

Jeffrey H. Anderson, a senior fellow in health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute, was the senior speechwriter for Secretary
Mike Leavitt at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is the director of the Benjamin Rush Society.
Andy Wickersham is a writer and consultant.