Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Sober Analysis - What Next?

Scott Brown deserves a ton of credit. He ran a fabulous - indeed almost flawless - campaign. He pulled off a phenomenal upset and, despite my own grave concerns about his policy positions, I will give the him the full benefit of the doubt along with my support and respect as our next Senator.

So what went wrong and what does it mean for the future of health reform? The pundits are salivating over many different theories: "It is a referendum on health form." "It is a referendum on Obama." "Coakley just blew it." But like most things in politics, there is no simple or easy answer. Without taking anything away from Scott Brown, I think it boils down the following five factors :

1. It's the economy, stupid. People vote with their pocketbooks. The economy is in awful shape. Despite unfathomable amounts of government money that has been spent on a stimulus package (and even more to save the big banks - which are about to pay billions of dollars in bonuses despite it) people are still suffering. They are rightfully frustrated and angry on account of the economy and this vote in large part was an outlet for that anger.

2. All politics are local. All of the pundits are focusing on the national reasons and implications of this vote. But the fact is that there were compelling local issues that probably played a larger role. Massachusetts is not a Democratic state. It is an Independent state that usually (but not always) votes Democratic. Fifty percent of voters are independent. Massachusetts voters believe deeply in a check and balance in government, which is why they have voted for so many Republican Governors. But three years ago, they went a bit out of their comfort zone by voting for a Democratic Governor, thereby giving complete control to the Democrats and eliminating the check that normally exists. They have been greatly disappointed by doing so.  Governor Patrick has not lived up to their high expectations, the Speaker of the House had to resign and could become the fourth successive Speaker of the House to be indicted, and a state Senator is now in jail for driving drunk, leaving the scene of an accident, and then violating his probation. The public is disgusted, as they should be, and the Dems are in charge. Voting for Scott Brown was a convenient outlet for bringing back some form of the check they believe in, particularly where he was running against a Democrat who appeared at times as though she was "entitled" to the seat. 

3. Government is getting too big. TARP, bank bailouts, insurance company bailouts and now a potential health care bill that will cost almost $1 trillion. The Republican rhetoric that Obama wants to make us a socialist republic is starting to resonate. People are losing everything while government is gaining more and getting bigger. That is very scary and frustrating to most ordinary citizens and Brown was quite adept at capitalizing on this feeling. 

4. Campaign missteps. Martha Coakley probably will become the Bill Buckner of the Massachusetts Democratic party. While a tempting analogy, this is unfair and not deserved. Yes, she ran a too-safe campaign. Yes, she made some grave mistakes and did not react quickly enough (or well enough) when she needed to. But to blame this all on her is to be dishonest.  It certainly contributed, but there was much more at play.

5. National health reform. There is no question that concern over national health reform played some role in Brown's success. He campaigned hard on being that 41st vote to stop it. But notice I put this last on the list. Contrary to most conventional wisdom, I think this is the least significant factor in Brown's success. It is true that the public is getting weary of health reform and only 38% of the public approve of the job Mr. Obama is doing on the subject, according to a new Wall Street Journal poll. But here is what people overlook. As the WSJ also noted, "People are even less happy with Republicans in Congress [on the issue of health reform] with just 26% approval. . ." So the frustration and confusion over health reform does not inure to the benefit of Republicans. And it is not as if they are feeling ideologically more aligned with Republicans on this subject. I believe it is simply that they don't like the process; it feels very big; they don't understand the details; and most people do not like big change.  Moreover, because Massachusetts citizens already have health reform, most people in our state (other than those of us who live and breath it every day) just do not care enough about what happens to the rest of the country on this issue (especially when compared to the other issues noted above). 

So what should the Dems do on health reform? There are only two viable options: (1) the House accepts the Senate version; or (2) the "conference" committee (aka the Democratic leadership) tries to negotiate a watered-down, less ambitious bill that some Republicans could support. I see the first options as the only viable alternative.  Here are its advantages. It will get a bill done, which is critical to the Democrats if they are to have any hope in November. They have been in charge and spent a year on this. If they come away with nothing, they are dead. It will also get it done quickly and move it off the agenda for now. This too is critical so Obama can get to focusing on jobs and the economy, which the public cares much more about right now. This endless debate is wearing people down and they don't want to hear it anymore. It will also allow time to pass and emotions to subside so that the Dems can communicate more effectively to the public about all the good this bill will do for them and that, too, will give the Democratic House members something very good to run on in the Fall. Finally, it is less costly and less ambitious than the House bill and if there is any message to be taken by this vote yesterday, I believe it is that we need to be less aggressive rather than more aggressive on health reform.

So why not try to negotiate a watered-down bill?  It is simply too risky, the process will be further dragged out and the Republicans are not to be trusted.  They simply have too strong an interest in continuing to stall and throw bombs because they know that no bill at all will serve them better in the Fall.  But why should the House accept the Senate version given their disagreements with some provisions?  Because it is clear that is the best they will get right now.  A watered-down bill from the conference will be even further to the right of where the Senate is now (and even further from the House). The only way to get Republican support is to add things the House members will hate. So, while the House might have to hold their nose to approve the Senate bill, all other options are worse from their perspective. This will get it done.  The House should suck it up and vote for the Senate bill, which will still result in a monumental accomplishment. Some of the concerns can be fixed later, since most of it does not take place for several years. There is no perfect solution, but this is the best result under the circumstances.  Anything else gets more ugly.  The House should take this step.

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