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
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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.