Monday, February 22, 2010

Elections, Consequences, and Presidential Choice

Ezra Klein:
That, of course, is the real plan: finish the bill. The if the bill fails, and they succeed if the bill passes.
Jonathan Chait:
Ultimately, I don't think you can answer the question of whether it made sense to undertake health care reform until we know whether or not it passes. If it does pass, it was a good idea...If it fails, it was a bad idea.

Well, I suppose I dig a little further into it.  Klein and Chait both agree that the bill would actually be good for the country; that's why they believe that it will work out well for the Democrats if it passes.  If the policy doesn't work, then it was never a good idea to try it (see also Seth Masket's good comments).

But it won't be a mistake by Barack Obama or by the current Democrats in Congress; it would be a long-term mistake by Democrats for over half a century.  Complaints, such as those by Charles Cook and Dana Milbank treat the attempt to pass comprehensive health care reform as a choice made by Barack Obama sometime after January 20, 2009.  But that's not right at all.  Barack Obama ran on health care reform.  It wasn't incidental to his election; it was absolutely essential.  Not, to be sure, to the general election campaign, but to his nomination in the first place.  Without a firm commitment to health care reform, Barack Obama would have folded his tent immediately after the Iowa caucuses, if he had even managed to make it that far in the first place.  Democrats demanded it.  And the idea that Obama would have had a thriving presidency if he had dropped the key part of his nomination platform for no good reason is preposterous.  In real life, Obama ran up against the left wing of his party merely for insufficiently backing the public option; if he had started 2009 by jettisoning the whole thing then he would have lost the support of mainstream liberals, as well.  Including mainstream liberals in Congress, who likely would have attempted to push ahead with health care reform without the president, given that all of them ran for office pledging to achieve that goal.

In other words, attempting to pass health care reform was not a choice for Barack Obama.  Any Democrat elected in 2008 would have done exactly the same thing.  And given the similarity in the plans pushed by the leading candidates for the nomination, it's fairly safe to say that any Democrat elected in 2008 would have had a substantively fairly similar bill.  I can't say that the process would have been identical, but on that I would say that it's unlikely that any other Democrat would have done better, and it's easy to imagine things going much worse...and that's even without any assurance that they'll wind up with a signing ceremony. 

The main point here: Presidents don't take office with complete freedom of action.  They win nominations, and they win elections, by forming coalitions -- and that means making commitments that constrain their choices once they reach the White House.  Ignore that, and you'll really misunderstand a lot of the actions that presidents take.  Moreover: ignore that, and you'll really misunderstand how elections work, and how American democracy works.


  1. Quite. A very important re-direction of the whole misguided conversation, this. That said, I do think the question of timing was legitimately put in the president's hands by the party. A decision to postpone health care for a year or so to see if progress could be made on the economy I believe would have been accepted (not without complaint) by the party if it had been presented as a tactical choice. Where the political analysts truly fall down is in believing a non-comprehensive, small-bore, bipartisan approach would ever have been acceptable to the party. You weren't going to tell Democrats in Jan. 2009 that this wasn't the term (if not the year) to Do Big Things.

  2. I agree that the president could have asked Congress to wait for a year. But it's hard for me to see how that would leave him, or the Democrats in general, any better off. Anyone who thinks that health care is driving the polling numbers (which, of course, aren't especially bad for Obama anyway) is just wrong.

  3. I agree it was the right call at the time, as delay would only have allowed intervening events to deteriorate the president's clout and led to a weaker effort when it was launched. So the party really should not complain that the president didn't put enough on the line over the issue -- he put it all on the line. That's why I actually think Chait's statement, "If it does pass, it was a good idea...If it fails, it was a bad idea" actually doesn't even put the argument strongly enough. It was the right call either way. That, of course, makes no observation about how the effort was carried out once it was decided it would be launched more or less immediately...


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