Wednesday, November 16, 2011

ACA and Long Term Partisan Trends

Lots of talk about health care expert Jonathan Gruber's shot at Mitt Romney today, but I wanted to challenge one thing he said (via Greg):
Look, if this succeeds, then Obama becomes F.D.R. This is the most important social policy accomplishment since the 1960s. And if this succeeds, this could be the kind of benefit to the Democratic Party that Social Security was. So if I was the Republicans, I'd be screaming and kicking and scratching to kill it too, on purely political grounds," he said.
I'm pretty skeptical about all of this. Social Security became law in 1935, and began paying benefits in 1940. Does it really explain much of FDR's success and Democratic success in general in the 1930s and 1940s, or in later years? I doubt it. Certainly there was a massive shift to the Democrats, but that's almost certainly a consequence of the Depression and FDR's perceived responsibility for saving the country from Depression and then from Nazis. The only clear cases, that is, where I think Social Security helped the Democrats was when despite its overwhelming popularity Republicans chose to oppose it, or to trim benefits, or to mess with it in some other way. The story seems even more clear-cut with Medicare; after all, it's also wildly popular, but Democrats lost five of the six presidential elections after it was passed.

Now, granted, a whole lot more is going on in any of those elections than Social Security or Medicare. Still, my guess is that when these things pass and become popular, it probably helps the current incumbent a bit if he's up for re-election, but after that it's all a wash; it quickly becomes just part of the background, something that's always been there and that everyone supports and takes for granted.

Of course, if it doesn't become popular, then that's a whole different story. But if ACA survives the courts, and survives the outcome of the 2012 elections, and gets implemented and turns out to work more or less the way that Gruber (and Barack Obama) believe it will, my guess is that it will have virtually no direct political effect going forward, and little or no indirect effect.


  1. Fair enough but I have to ask, could have the New Deal/Social Security been at all responsible for the period of general Democratic dominance of Congress (with a few notable exceptions) until the 90’s? After all, the post-War period was filled with influential Southern Dems in Congress who were economic populists but very conservative on social issues and largely hawks on Foreign Policy. This is one of those classic liberal “why we can’t have nice things” arguments you hear from time to time: that economic populism and social programs (like Social Security) were the key to success for liberalism from FDR to Nixon, and the abandonment of those issues in favor of others—like the anti-war movement during Vietnam—was the reason for the rise of conservatism in the last quarter of the 20th century. Do you think there’s anything to that at all?

  2. Social Security was a very limited program at the beginning, and probably the appropriate comparison of Obamacare is Medicare.
    All of which is to say that you are right that Obamacare will be of very limited electoral benefit to Obama, but will serve as a kind of firewall for Democrats going forward (if it is implemented and is embraced in the way Medicare has been.) I may be wrong about this, but Medicare was among the most important acts passed by LBJ but was of no weight when he had to consider a reelection campaign.

  3. There was tremendous demand for some kind of pension system in 1934-35, and SS put a kind of bond of permanence on the New Deal (along w/ unemployment insurance) and enabled FDR to crystallize what it stood for. Also, as the social safety net matured, I would think it helped cement the Democratic edge in Congress over subsequent decades.
    I was surprised to read recently in Michael Hiltzik's The New Deal that SS passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses -- most Republicans voted for it. Earlier, I had read about the over-the-top attacks of ideological opponents and did not realize that they did not really speak for the GOP as a whole, at least not at the outset.

  4. All this assumes that if the Affordable Care Act survives the next Congress and the Supreme Court, mainstream Republicans will make their peace with it (as Republican Presdential candidates and nationally prominent legislators made their peace with Medicare, at least in public). What if, in an ideologically polarized age, that doesn't happen with the ACA? What if the Tea Party wing of the party forces Republican candidates for several elections to promise to abolish a program whose effects have become overwhelmingly popular with the electorate as a whole?

    I'm not sure in fact that the ACA will survive or that it will become overwhelmingly popular if it does. But assuming those two things, the Gruber scenario is, I think, based on something like what I've just said.


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