Monday, September 21, 2009

Liberals: Still Not Losing

Some really good stuff today from Jon Chait and Ezra Klein on the state of the health care reform effort. First, Chait:
Health care, alas, seems to be following the same track. My liberal friends seem convinced either that Congress will reject health care reform, or that it will pass a meaningless palliative. The main exception among this admittedly unrepresentative sample consists of liberals who study health care reform for a living and those (like me) who regularly communicate with them. These wonks (and wonk acquaintances) all think Obama will sign a historic health care bill. Sadly, the wonk cohort is starkly outnumbered.
I think Chait is right that liberals have been unduly harsh about the stimulus, and as Ezra points out liberals are unduly pessimistic about passage of a significant health care bill. Part of this is that, as Chait points out, liberals actually involved in the negotiations have an incentive to denounce the compromises made with more moderate Democrats, because they want to keep pushing the bill in their direction.
That's not the only reason, however. I suspect a lot of Democrats are simply convinced, after sixty or so years of failure, that health care reform just won't ever really happen. Other Democrats, I think, misunderstand the lessons of 2001-2003. There's a sense that marginal Democrats caved to Bush and let him win on taxes and Iraq back then, and so marginal Democrats are not to be trusted, and will eventually sink health care reform now. But that's not really a good reading of 2001-2003 (marginal Dems mostly hopped on a bandwagon that was leaving town with or without them, rather than "letting" Bush win, among other things), and it's not clear what implications it has for 2009 and health care.
Yet another reason is that liberals don't understand what happened in 1994 (Ezra is right on the money about this; I haven't yet read his longer piece that he links to, but anyone who talks about Ira Magaziner is definitely on the right track, IMO).

One of the things that fools people about 1993-1994 is that on the surface, the numbers look very similar -- the Democrats had 57 Senators in January 1993, compared with 58 in January 2009 -- but by fall, the numbers had shifted to 56 in 1993 and 60 (once Kennedy's replacement is seated) in 2009. Moreover, while Ben Nelson is certainly not very liberal, he's much more of a "real" Democrat than was Richard Shelby, who pretty much voted like a conservative Republican even before he switched parties after the 1994 elections. There's just a tremendous difference between having 56 Democrats -- including Shelby and another future party-switcher, Ben Nighthorse Campbell -- and having 60 Democrats. That's easy to see in the difference between the stimulus package this year, which passed with 61 votes (without Al Franken, a solid liberal vote for health care) and the Clinton budget package, which squeaked by with 50. Granted, there are a number of differences between the bills, but there are more differences between the two Senates.

All of which is to say that, as we get ready for Senate Finance's markup, I agree with Ezra and Jon that things look pretty good for passage of a very significant bill.

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