“The Democratic Party is lashed to health reform—even in the face of polls showing tepid public support.” Thus Politico’s Carrie Brown paraphrases senior Democratic aides. As unappealing as that predicament may sound, Brown writes that those same aides say “it would be politically disastrous to flip-flop now.”
Not so. What would be politically disastrous for Democratic congressmen is to keep turning a deaf ear to the American people and to forge ahead with a highly unpopular bill. Among the mantras that might help Democrats emerge victorious in November, this one isn’t likely to top the list: The people don’t want it, so we’d better give it to them.
President Obama has echoed this line of thought. In a speech to House Democrats on January 14, he said,
[I know] some of you have gotten beaten up at home. . . . But I also know what happens once we get this . . . bill into law: The American people will suddenly learn that this bill does things they like and doesn’t do things people have been trying to say it does.
So we’re to believe that after months of extended debate and discussion, the American people would “suddenly” learn that this bill—which wouldn’t go into effect in any meaningful way until 2014—is really not so bad. At least the president doesn’t pitch such fanciful comments directly to the American people.
All wishful thinking aside, Americans know that the bill would raise spending, taxes, deficits, premiums, and overall health costs; would cut Medicare and cost jobs; and would inject the federal government into the historically and rightfully private relationship between patient and doctor. None of this would change simply because President Obama puts his signature on the bill.
In truth, the president and his aides are happy to sacrifice a few dozen congressional Democrats on the altar of Obamacare. They are focused on three immediate goals: passing a very unpopular bill before its window of opportunity closes, increasing the federal government’s power over our society, and giving President Obama something to talk about in his State of the Union address.
But individual House Democrats care a great deal about their own fate. And it’s not too late for them. Evidence from 1994 suggests that Democrats who opposed Hillarycare were largely spared by the voters. It was those who supported it who felt the voters’ wrath.
In Hillarycare’s wake in 1994, the more conservative Democrats did far better than run-of-the-mill Democrats—even though the opposite is normally true (see our “Real Lessons of 1994,” in the December 21, 2009, WEEKLY STANDARD). This time around, nothing will mark a Democratic member as one who should be spared more than his final vote on Obamacare. Contrary to the not-so-helpful advice of senior Democratic aides, many members could save their own seats with just one vote.
So, allow us to introduce nine House Democrats who desperately need to cast that crucial “no” on Obamacare to save their congressional careers. All of these members voted “yes” on Obamacare the first time around. Their final vote will be where the rubber hits the road.
Tom Perriello (Va.) represents a district that Republican presidential candidates have won in three straight elections—twice by double-digits. The same is true for John Salazar (Colo.), Chris Carney (Pa.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), Zack Space (Ohio), and Alan Mollohan (W.Va.). These are not districts that want Obamacare.
In addition, Perriello, Salazar, Carney, Space, and Mollohan represent districts with high numbers of seniors. Polls show that America’s seniors particularly dislike the proposed bill, perhaps because they don’t relish having $800 billion siphoned out of Medicare and spent on Obamacare—which is what the Congressional Budget Office says would happen in the bill’s real first decade (2014 to 2023).
Baron Hill (Ind.) represents a district that has gone Republican by an average of 11 percentage points in the last three presidential elections. He is also one of four official leaders of the Blue Dogs, a self-described “fiscally conservative” group of Democrats. In addition to its effect on his own prospects, his vote on Obamacare will go a long way toward showing whether Blue Dogs believe in fiscal conservatism in reality, or only in press releases.
Kathleen Dahlkemper (Pa.) represents another district that Republicans have swept in the past three presidential elections. In addition, 39 percent of her district’s seniors are enrolled in Medicare Advantage. In its real first decade, according to CBO projections, Obamacare would cut Medicare Advantage benefits by an average of $21,000 per person.
That’s a new car worth of lost benefits for seniors—unless they live in South Florida. Thanks to the infamous “Gator Aid” deal struck behind closed doors in the Senate, seniors in large parts of the Sunshine State would be exempted from these cuts. But those in Rep. Dahlkemper’s district, like most seniors across the other 49 states, wouldn’t be so fortunate.
Earl Pomeroy’s district—the entire state of North Dakota—doesn’t just “lean” Republican. North Dakotans favored Republican candidates by an average of 21 points in the last three presidential elections. Pomeroy doesn’t seem to read the writing on the wall. He told Politico on January 15 that he just wants to see the debate end—“We need to move on.” If Pomeroy doesn’t switch his vote on Obama-care, North Dakota voters will likely give him the chance to move on.
There are other members besides the nine above who would probably vote “no” on Obamacare if they listened to their constituents—members like Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Bill Foster (Ill.), Steve Driehaus (Ohio), Melissa Bean (Ill.), and Steve Kagen (Wis.), all of whom are in highly competitive districts.
Furthermore, other Democrats who have already voted “no” on Obamacare may need their constituents to remind them that now is no time to go wobbly—members like Scott Murphy (N.Y.), Larry Kissell (N.C.), John Adler (N.J.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), and John Barrow (Ga.).
Voters can be quite forgiving of members who go astray but who correct their course in the end. But they have long memories when members go astray at key moments and fail to correct themselves when they have the chance. To survive Election Day, Democratic congressmen in competitive districts need to give voters a reason to forgive, rather than a reason to remember.
Jeffrey H. Anderson, director of the Benjamin Rush Society, was the senior speechwriter for Secretary Mike Leavitt at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Andy Wickersham is a writer and consultant.