President Obama confirmed the worst kept secret in Washington this week: Democrats will move health legislation forward in Congress without any Republican support, despite a bevy of polls saying slow down or start over.
But others are asking a more fundamental question. Why are they doing this in the first place?
“I just don’t get it,” a senior Republican strategist told me this week, shaking his head in disbelief. “Jamming a partisan health care bill through the process doesn’t make any sense. [Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi is not engaged in leadership. It seems more like she’s asking rank-in-file members to sign a political suicide pact.”
Head scratching like this has reached pandemic proportions. But there are few explanations that help clarify why hurling headlong toward passing the controversial legislation seems like a good idea – at least to some Democrats.
Here is a sampling of these theories.
One Democratic lobbyist advanced the “public education thesis.” “Sure, this might seem controversial now. But once it’s done, Members of Congress will have a chance to explain what they did, why, and how it’s going to make a difference.”
According to this theory, support will rise and opposition will ease, but only after the bill is enacted. The strategy, however, hinges on lawmakers’ ability to do an effective post-passage marketing job. It also assumes the opposition will not mount any kind of successful counter mobilization to protest its passage.
A variation on the public education thesis is the “Americans support success” conjecture. It goes something like this: Voters like accomplishments. Seeing the president in the Rose Garden, signing health care reform legislation into law will improve Mr. Obama’s approval numbers, which helps his party politically in the midterm election. Getting a bill done – almost irrespective of its contents – will help boost the White House’s and Democrats’ political fortunes, according to this view.
Next there is the “good as it gets” hypothesis. After two successful election cycles (2006 and 2008) Democrats amassed large majorities in the House and the Senate. But now they have reached their maximum majority size, based on this theory. With the prospects of their party strength only shrinking next year, now is the time to act on health care.
George Crawford, a former chief of staff to Speaker Pelosi and now a senior government affairs advisor at King and Spalding wrote an opinion piece recently in The Hill underscoring this point. Crawford argues that after “successful campaigns over the past several cycles, Democrats had come closer to their potential high-water mark.” He goes on to posit the party’s majority would get smaller irrespective of the House’s actions in the 111th Congress. So they might as well do it while Democrats have the votes.
Finally, there is the “energize the base” argument. This one has perhaps the most appeal because it includes some empirical support. Public polling on health care always masks huge variation in opinion between Republicans and Democrats.
For example, in a recent Rasmussen poll, President Obama’s health care plan lagged overall by a 41 percent (oppose) -56 percent (favor) margin among likely voters. Yet looking at the crosstabs tells a very different story. Nearly 7 out of 10 (71 percent) self-identified Democrats favor the legislation, while only 12 percent of Republicans approve. This nearly 60 point spread between the parties on this issue has emerged in poll after poll in the last several years on this issue.
In other words, passing health care reform is a bit of a Holy Grail for Democrats. It is one of the most important debates and potential accomplishments for the party’s most ardent partisans – and has been for many years. Failure to enact this legislation would render a crippling blow to those most apt to volunteer, talk to their friends about politics, give money and vote in the upcoming midterm election. These base voters may not always guarantee the party’s victory, but without them defeat is assured.
Some combination of these four theories is the driving force behind the Democrats’ end game on health care. Of course, each of these conjectures includes a host of counter arguments that could prove disastrous for congressional Democrats in November. But for now, the president and his party’s legislative leaders agree – the only thing worse than passing health care reform is doing nothing at all.