The Magazine

Dead Congress Walking

The Democrats are afraid of the voters and mad at each other. Their vaunted health care reform is going to do them in.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Dead Congress Walking

A stranger moment in politics has seldom been seen. A vast expansion of government that affects every one of the country’s 300-plus million inhabitants may be passed by a hair against fierce and fiercely repeated public opposition by a Congress that no longer speaks for its voters—most of whose members are angry and scared. They are afraid of their voters, and mad at each other, or rather, the Democrats are: The liberals are mad at the centrists, the centrists are mad at the liberals. Democrats in the House are angry at those in the Senate, and deeply suspicious of being betrayed. The centrists are also mad at Obama, for picking the wrong cause (health care and not the economy), doing it in the wrong way (big and expensive, not incremental and smaller), and pushing them to risk their careers in backing a cause and a program neither they nor their constituents want. 

For Obama himself, health care has been toxic, decimating his numbers, and ripping apart his mystique. In the course of the fight his approval ratings have dipped from near 70 to the mid-40s, his magic has vanished, and his words have gone flat. The coalition that elected him has fallen apart, as independents, mistakenly lured by his “conservative” temperament, have fled to the welcoming arms of the opposite party. Polling suggests that all the red and swing states Obama took from George W. Bush have now turned against him. The elections held since health care became the main issue have rendered votes of no confidence: In 2008, Virginia went to Obama by a 7-point margin; in 2009, it elected a Republican governor by 18, a 25-point recalibration. In 2008, New Jersey went to Obama by 15 points; in 2009 it went to Chris Christie by 4. Massachusetts, which went for Obama by 26 points (and which hasn’t had a Republican senator since the late 1970s), gave Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Republican who campaigned against health care, by a margin of 5 points. Respected nonpartisan political analysts now predict a “wave” election for the upcoming midterms, in which the out party wins one or both houses of Congress​—an event that is usually driven by a major calamity like the failure of the Clinton health care reform plan in the 1994 midterms plus congressional scandal or the 2006 loss for Republicans, triggered by congressional scandal and what looked then like a loss in Iraq. Democrats hold massive majorities—18 seats in the Senate, and 79 in the House—but many of the states and districts that they represent now poll as being against the health care proposal, creating a major democratic dysfunction, as many members are voting against the wishes and interests of their districts and states. This lopsided body, in which Democrats are clawing to eke out even a one-vote majority, is a dead Congress walking, out of step with most of its voters, who on this issue at least are temporarily represented by the naysayers on the Republican side of the aisle. Health care reform has dissolved the Democrats’ coalition, and with it much of their moral authority. If health care survives, it will have been passed by the shell of a Congress that outlived its own mandate.

Supporters of the current legislation on health care reform compare this effort to Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, but the differences between them are stark. None of these passed with substantial majorities of the public strongly against them. None passed without substantial backing from the opposite party. None of them had the remarkable effect of uniting the opposition in monolithic resistance, while at the same time splitting their party, demoralizing it, and setting its various factions strongly at odds. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson never had to spend billions of dollars to pick up the votes of unhappy senators. Their stature was enhanced by passing these measures, not lessened and compromised. And their bills were passed on their merits, not on desperate appeals to save the party and president from a political pasting, which seems the main talking point being used on reluctant members of Congress now. “The crusade that is dragging itself toward the finish line doesn’t quite feel like a triumph, let alone the launch of a new New Deal,” wrote Howard Fineman in Newsweek, even before Scott Brown tossed his bombshell. “The reasons offered .  .  . have been ever-shifting. .  .  . By the time Bill Clinton met privately with Senate Democrats .  .  . it was .  .  . primarily about the political optics: the need to pass something, anything, to avoid defeat.” “Their sole remaining reason for completing the damned thing is that they started it,” writes George Will, noting that the main passion driving Democrats is a fear of repeating the 1994 wipeout, which they trace, perhaps incorrectly, to the failure to pass health care that year. At any rate, the main emotion among Democrats seems to be a balance of terror: fear of passing the bill against fear of killing it, making them face the wrath of the voters; or their party’s base, leaders, and president. 

No party or president has ever put its members in a vise of this nature before. Or seen its backers make so many strange statements in trying to press a bill’s case. Back in the days before Scott Brown’s victory, when the Democrats still had their 60-man supermajority, the claim was that the fault lay in the “system” and the Senate, and never in the bill. “What precisely is the point of the United States Senate?” asked New York magazine’s John Heilemann. “If a popular, shrewd president coupled with a Congress with a strong majority in both houses held by the president’s party can’t get its program passed .  .  . something is structurally wrong.” What was wrong, however, wasn’t the structure. The president was not in fact shrewd and was no longer popular, the party wasn’t strong but split (at least on this issue), and the bill was disliked by much of the public, which made its objections often and noisily felt.

As for the Senate, it is a more representative body than Obamacare’s defenders believe. In many states having two Democratic senators, the health care bill polls very poorly; indicating not that the Senate rules give the minority too much power, but that in many states represented by Democrats, the senators aren’t giving voice to their voters’ ideas. Virginia, which has two Democrats (James Webb and Mark Warner), strongly opposes the president’s version of health care and gave Republican Bob McDonnell a landslide in the governor’s race to drive home the message. New Jersey, with two Democrats (Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez), elected Republican Chris Christie governor to make the same point. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is in very deep trouble, as is her fellow Democratic senator, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, who, when he got the Cornhusker Kickback, was jeered and hissed roundly by resident voters, and saw his numbers plummet. Massachusetts, which between 1978 and 2010 had no Republican senators at all in its delegation, and for eight years had no Republican members of Congress, elected Republican Scott Brown, on a pledge to fight health care. In this sense, John Kerry, Paul Kirk, and even Ted Kennedy, didn’t represent Massachusetts. The woes of the health care reform are not the fault of the Senate at all.

Another strange view now being floated is that the public in general is angry because the bill is held up in Congress, and nothing is now being done. Let’s back up and break this down into two different segments: The liberal base is angry because the bill is being tied up in Congress. The public in general is furious because the bill is still being brought up at all. If the bill is passed, the base will be pleased, but the public at large will be even more furious. And at the last calculation, the public in general was about three times as large as the base. A similar view is that the bill has to pass because it’s unpopular, because it’s only after its passage that its merits can be fully discussed. In this sense, the debate in itself is the primary obstacle.  “We have to pass the bill, so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy,” says Nancy Pelosi. “Once they pass a plan, you can actually talk about a plan,” says E. J. Dionne. “No president can win the argument over health care prospectively because the country is not inclined to believe that Washington can reform a system this complex,” Ron Brownstein quotes White House flack Dan Pfeiffer. “The only way to sell comprehensive reform, Pfeiffer continued, is to pass it despite poor poll numbers, and then build support.” Usually, one builds support before voting, and then votes when one has it. But these are unusual times. 

 

Strangest of all is the popular theory that if the bill passes​—by bribes, threats, and payoffs, and against fierce opposition—there will be a triumphant, Rose Garden signing, and then the whole issue will fade. Good luck with that. A bill forced through against such popular dissent is likely to start, and not settle, contention, for two big reasons.

First, this bill is not only disliked, it is disliked intensely, and across a wide swath of the population. Majorities not only dislike it, but majorities of those majorities dislike it intensely. Twice as many independents dislike as support it intensely, and the intensity of antipathy has only grown. They dislike it intensely because it will affect them intensely, on a personal level. Tax cuts don’t affect everyone equally. Very few people are ever on welfare. Most people who live long enough do get on Medicare, but not everyone does at the same time. Health care involves everyone, every day, on an emotional, primitive, life and death level. Everyone needs doctors. Everyone has had an experience, or has friends and relations who have had the experience, where the right or wrong medical treatment at the right or wrong time by the right or wrong doctor made the difference between life and death, between a full and a partial recovery, and an experience that was neither traumatic nor financially ruinous, or one that was hell on all counts. Everyone fears a system that could give them the wrong doctor instead of the right one at just the wrong moment, and everyone, no matter how rich, strong, well-connected, or seemingly healthy, knows that an accident or a bad diagnosis can come any day. Polls show that most people believe this plan will make their care more expensive, and at the same time, less satisfactory than what they already have. Add to this the fact that the bill by necessity trips a mare’s nest of hot wires—abortion, rationing, euthanasia on the basis of “social utility,” and the whole moral complex of beginning- and end-of-life issues—and one has no reason for thinking this issue will be laid to rest soon.

Second, the bill’s defenders say “process” themes don’t move the public, and they may be right. But what they call “process” in this case reads like “corruption” to others, such as the bribes, threats, and buyoffs with which the bill cleared the Senate. Three hundred million dollars to buy Mary Landrieu, over a billion to pay off Ben Nelson. Besides being corrupt, the administration is looking inept in the bargain: The past week brought Massapiece Theatre, along with the wavering Democratic congressman whose brother was offered a judgeship just as he was being asked to the White House for a collegial talk. This is beginning to look like The Godfather crossed with a Marx Brothers movie, a bad sign for an administration that came in touting competence and projecting the feel of a Frank Capra film. 

In fact, the process is part of the problem, and stems from the bill’s weakness, which makes payoffs essential: “Because the legislation is frightening and unpopular, Democrats have had to resort to serial bribery,” writes George Will, correctly. “Massachusetts voted immediately after the corruption of exempting, until 2018, union members from the tax on high value” insurance plans. This and the Cornhusker Kickback helped fuel Scott Brown’s upset, which created the need for still more extravagant buyoffs: Each bribe makes the bill more unpopular, creating the need for more bribes. Senate rules may bore voters, but they find this arresting—one reason the strife will go on.

Other big bills may have been controversial, but most passed in the end by comfortable margins. No reform bill on this grand scale has ever passed in the face of such opposition, with solid majorities so firmly against it, with no votes at all from the opposite party, and with the party in power so split. No such bill had an organized opposition​—the tea party movement—in place against it, ready to march at the first opportunity. Opposition to health care has been very good to the Republican party, and as long as it is, the party will use and run on it. Legal challenges from the states, already in progress, will also add to the air of contention. This is a war that could go on for years.

Liberals say Democrats have to pass this bill to prove they can govern. But will the public see wasting a year on something that’s not a priority, then pushing a bill they don’t want through multiple payoffs, and ending up with something they think will make their lives worse as a species of “governing” they want anything more to do with? Meanwhile, the Democrats are in the intensive care unit, their president wounded, their members demoralized, their coalition in tatters. Come November, voters may decide they’d rather be much less “governed”—or governed by somebody else.

 

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


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