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Catastrophic Success

The perils of a ‘do everything’ Democratic Congress.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Once upon a time, there was success and there was failure, and one could usually tell the difference between them​​—​the first had a thousand fathers and the second was an orphan​​—​but those days are over: The Democrats of 2010 have come up with a new variant, catastrophic success. That’s what happens when you do something big, and it turns out quite badly, when you pass your agenda and get beaten for doing it, when you rack up a historic level of legislative achievements most of which most people hate. This is the fate of the Democrats’ 2009-2010 Congress: In the old days, you failed when you didn’t enact your agenda and were run against as a “do-nothing” Congress; it took Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi to define failure as doing too much.

Catastrophic Success

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

Seldom before has such a thing happened, but seldom before has an administration governed so against the grain of public opinion, and when this occurs, there are costs. The costs are the loss of the House by a landslide of epic proportions and the implosion of support for the president’s party. The success is the passage of Obama-care, which liberals believed would change things forever. Congresses come and go, so they said, while a historic reform is forever: It would live on, they averred, while the results of the midterms would blow off quite quickly. But even before the Eastern District Court of Virginia blew a large hole in Obamacare in early December, finding its individual mandate unconstitutional, there were signs that this bargain was taking on water. There are four little words to be said to these people: Don’t be too sure.

Don’t be too sure, in the first place, that the effects of these midterms will dwindle that fast. The elections this year were not like those of the previous conservative blowout. For one thing, 1994 did not end in 0. But 2010 does, which means “census,” which means redistricting, which is a job done by the states. In this election, the voters gave control of most of the states to Republicans, who will use the opportunity voters gave them. How big was the Republicans’ gain in statehouses? In three words, wide, sweeping, and deep. They picked up a record 680 seats in state legislatures. The tide swept through the Midwest, through big states and swing states, erasing gains Democrats had made in two previous cycles, turning one-time Obama states red. Republicans gained more than 100 seats in New Hampshire (which had gone for Obama); went in Michigan from a Democratic lead of 22 seats to a Republican lead of 16; went in Minnesota from being down 40 seats to being up 10; went in Iowa from being down 12 seats to being up 20; and went in Texas to a lead in the statehouse so commanding that a local reporter called it “an annihilation bordering on political genocide.” At the same time, Republicans went from having 22 to 29 governors, including in all the key swing states.

The effects of this inland tsunami will help shape the future in several ways, of which redistricting is only the first. Republicans will redraw four times as many district lines as Democrats. This will influence the next five congressional elections, until the 2020 census comes along. Some observers think this alone could be good for between 15 and 25 seats in upcoming elections. That may be optimistic, but control of redistricting certainly can’t hurt. Added to this, Obama now faces hostile state governments in all the swing states he won two years ago, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. He has to win most of these, or else he’s a goner. Statehouses also give rise to the stars of the future and are the seedbeds from which governors, senators, and now and then presidents spring. The massacre in the states means the Democrats will have a weak bench going forward. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as Obama, began on the state level. Were future Democratic stars drowned in the flood?

Congressmen talk, but governors govern and can present competing conservative models of government to put alongside Obama’s ideas. New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, elected in 2009, have had great success already cutting taxes and spending, and the new class seems eager to follow their lead. These new governors are not only younger (and much more conservative), but also far more diverse. Republicans now have four female governors, two Hispanics, and two Indian-Americans—a more heterodox crew than the Democrats currently have. Some may find their way onto national tickets and, in doing so, change the idea of the party as the domain of the old, white, and male. They will vie for the lead in the fight against health care, and fittingly so, and it was this that elected them. In the coming two years, this will be their main battle. Democrats said that losing the House was a price well worth paying, but the loss of the states may be in the long run a great deal more costly. One of these governors may turn into the president who signs health care’s repeal into law.

At the same time, don’t be too sure that Obamacare is forever, at least not in the form that it passed. A Republican president could sign a repeal that was passed by a simple majority. The Supreme Court could declare it unconstitutional, as did the court in Virginia, which was only 1 of 24 state-propelled lawsuits, now making their way up the chain. (The case could reach the  Court just in time for the 2012 election: with what impact no one can guess.) In the meantime, the GOP has made plans for a campaign of attrition, designed to soften it up for that coming election, and designed less to upend it in one single motion than to inflict many cuts from a thousand directions, through which its life blood may trickle away. The House can block funds needed for implementation: money to hire the IRS agents needed to enforce the individual mandate; funds to run the board that approves cuts in Medicare; funds to help states set up insurance exchanges the states may not want to see formed. 

The House will make life hard for the Democrats in the Senate, 23 of whom are up for reelection in 2012, and 13 of whom come from states in which Obamacare is extremely unpopular and which took a sharp turn to the right in the recent midterm elections. It will force them to vote over and over on health care, choosing between their constituents and their party and president, knowing their “aye” votes will find their way into commercials run by their GOP challengers, and their “nay” votes will enrage their own party’s base. When they voted “aye” for the first time (in December 2009) it was bad enough, but they had no way of knowing that the endgame would become quite so ugly, that the act itself would become quite so unpopular, or that Obama would become quite so unable to save them from voters’ hostility; now they know all of these things.

A parallel line of attack will be opened up by state governments, where the new crop of governors (and state representatives) will come in quite handy indeed. Complaining that compliance with the new law would bankrupt her state, Governor-elect Nikki Haley of South Carolina urged Obama to repeal his signature act outright, and then asked for opt-outs for some of its major provisions. In Virginia, the State Senate declared it illegal to mandate that the state’s residents buy health insurance, setting up a confrontation with the federal government. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty directed state agencies to “reject participation in Obamacare unless required by law or consistent with existing state policy.” Some states are asking for waivers to opt out of parts of the health care reform act, others are considering dropping the Medicaid program in response to the expansion the new act demands. At the same time, they will pour on the political pressure in Washington: “We are going to form an oversight entity that will identify Washington programs that aren’t working, go to Capitol Hill and testify on how they can be handled better and propose . . . practices for how states can govern themselves without undue interference from the feds,” Republican Governors’ Association head Haley Barbour told the Wall Street Journal. What “Washington programs” might he have in mind? 

Along with the lawsuits, and fights in the House and statehouses, there seems to exist a distinct possibility that the act may collapse of its weight. Assembled in haste​​—​one might say desperation​​—​and larded with deals to secure votes and backing, it is a 2,000-plus page assemblage of time bombs with varying fuse lengths that are starting to blow up in succession, causing large numbers of people inconvenience, or money, or both. Almost every provision seems to have some part that conflicts with another or contrives in some way to screw up the market in ways hitherto unforeseen. Increased costs are causing employers to drop people from coverage, to charge more for coverage, or to drop drug coverage for employees’ children. Thus far, 222 waivers have been granted to members of interest groups who favor the Democrats, enabling them to opt out of parts of the plan that might become onerous. Doctors are planning to shutter their practices. The promises made by Obama​—​about being able to keep your own plan or doctor​—​are turning out to be hollow. “Firms Feel Pain from Health Law” ran a recent article in the Wall Street Journal describing the problems faced by large and middle-sized businesses in trying to understand, much less to comply with, the act. 

“There’s [an] administrative burden just to try and understand the 2,400 pages,” said one executive, describing the pain of spending so much time and money on things that aren’t helping their companies grow. Because of this, among other reasons, the bill continues to grow more unpopular, as six in ten people now favor repeal. “It’s looking more and more as if [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] as passed is simply not politically (or practically) stable,” Megan McArdle wrote on the website of the Atlantic. “I think Democrats were counting on having more years to tweak it.  .  .  . That was a very dangerous gamble .  .  . considering how badly it did in the polls.” They counted on time to tweak it upward and left (assuming that history moves in just this direction), and now have to realize it will be tweaked downward and right, if it survives in the first place. And let us recall that all of their upbeat predictions​—​that Obama’s numbers would go up by 10 points once he signed it (Bill Clinton); that people would reward Democrats for having “proved they could govern”; that people would ignore or get over the process that was used to pass Obamacare; that it would be accepted and grow popular, like Social Security​—​have proved to be wrong. 

Don’t be too sure, finally, that the damage Obama-care has done to the progressive agenda is something that can be quickly undone. Remember the hype at Obama’s election? It was historic! It was transcendent! It was transformational, uppercase CHANGE! Conservatism was dead, said Sam Tanenhaus and a cadre of others. Newsweek affirmed that we were “all socialists now.” The mainstream narrative held that the financial crisis had opened a door for Obama and Reid and Pelosi, and that their successes would feed a demand for more government. But the master plan failed to work out. The Democrats’ “stimulus” gave birth to resistance; the mortgage bailouts conjured a Tea Party; and then it was health care reform​—​the act itself, along with the long fight to pass it​—​that brought it all tumbling down. Obama’s job approval ratings were in the high 50s in April 2009, when he began selling health care; in the high 40s in December, when the Senate passed health care, and in the low 40s when Congress put the finishing touches to Obamacare in March 2010. 

Along the way, independents discovered their inner Republican and swung against the man they had elected; conservatism had an astounding revival; and support for activist government, which had briefly ticked up with Obama’s election to a 51-43 ratio, fell back two years later to 38-56. His legislative successes all added up to less faith in government: By the summer of 2010, a large group of liberals had succumbed to depression, as they sensed their successful battles had produced a lost war. “The storyline is much larger than merely that the stimulus has failed,” wrote Michael Tomasky in the Guardian. “It is that government is a failure. . . . The great bottom-line hope back in November 2008 was that Obama was going to restore trust in government and prove it could solve problems. That hasn’t happened.” The chance of a lifetime has been squandered by liberals. Another won’t come again soon.

Giddy with failure after the midterm elections, some on the left still insist it was all worth it, regardless of their losses. They “convinced themselves that their agenda . . . is the moral equivalent of the Voting Rights Act,” as William Galston has put it, a cause whose grandeur justifies unpopularity and electoral defeat. But the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed with healthy majorities and many votes from Republicans; they were unpopular in the deep South, but nowhere beyond it. While passing them, Lyndon B. Johnson won a spectacular blowout in the 1964 election, losing only the old South, plus his opponent’s home state. Obamacare, however, has always been unpopular, is unpopular, everywhere and has only seen its unpopularity increase. Liberals claim an entitlement is never rejected, but the broad middle class doesn’t think that this is one: It expects to pay more for less choice and less service, which fuels its strong opposition and pique.

There is no precedent for a bill of this size and scope being passed in defiance of the will of the public by a duly-elected majority which has nonetheless ceased to reflect or even acknowledge the views of the voters. For this reason, much of the public thinks it illegitimate, and sees nothing wrong in amassing a collection of weapons in the effort to see it undone.

If a Republican is elected in 2012, then health care is history. If health care is the issue, Obama will lose. If all things are equal, and it is an issue, a loss is still likely. If the economy rebounds strongly, Obama will probably win. But if it doesn’t, and he loses because of this reason, then health care will have helped do him in. Businesses are sitting on loads of cash these days, reluctant to invest and add jobs until they know what will happen with regulations and taxes under this new health care dispensation, which may take effect, be radically altered in the states or by Congress, or be blown away by the courts. They may not know until during or after the 2012 cycle, when the Supreme Court may weigh in, the wars in the states and the House may be settled, and they may have some idea who will be running the government in 2013. If the recovery stalls through 2012, it will be very bad news for the president.

The Democrats’ problem is that their losses are locked in and a given, while the state of their “win” remains highly precarious. If Obama wins, his health care regime may still emerge diminished and battered. If he loses, for whatever reason, then Obamacare is gone.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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