Opinion Columns & Blogs

It's make or break time for Democrats

It's crunch time for President Obama and the congressional Democrats. The political stakes are clear. If they want to ensure that they will be slaughtered in the November congressional elections, all they need to do in the weeks ahead is screw up their golden opportunity to pass health care reform.

Being Democrats, they are entirely capable of screwing this up. If they do, they will create the optimal conditions for losing their majorities — much the way they were decimated in November 1994, when the failure to enact Clinton-sponsored health care reform prompted millions of disappointed Democrats to stay home on Election Day.

The current conventional wisdom decrees that Democrats will lose scores of seats in November even if they do pass health reform; according to polls, swing-voting independents generally oppose the sweep and price tag of Obama's proposed overhaul. But midterm elections are typically dominated by the most partisan voters. If the left is more enthusiastic and motivated than the right, Democrats tend to win. If the right is more stoked than the left, Republicans tend to win.

Eight months before Election Day, the right is clearly more ginned up for the balloting; anger is a great motivator. Democrats cannot hope to even the odds, to at least minimize their November losses, unless they give their own partisans a darned good reason to show up. So far, there is no such reason.

Obama won a decisive '08 victory (in part by campaigning for health reform), the Democrats have huge margins in both congressional chambers, yet they've barely done squat to move the Democratic agenda. Failing now on health reform — when they have the votes for passage and the parliamentary route for passage — would likely put the kibosh on Democratic turnout. Liberal voters, black voters and particularly the young voters who backed Obama so enthusiastically are likely to ask themselves, "If these people can't get anything done, even with their big majorities, then why should I bother to vote?"

Politically speaking, Democratic lawmakers basically have two choices: They can pass health reform this spring and spend the rest of the campaign year touting all the historic good stuff; or they can do nothing and spend the rest of the year defending that. In other words, they can choose to be proactive and upbeat, or they can choose to be timid and downbeat.

The latter is no way to win. Yet that's the route Democrats took in 1994. After they whiffed on Clinton health reform (which never even came to a floor vote), Democratic partisans basically concluded that their representatives in Washington couldn't govern. So they stayed home, ceding the electoral battlefield to the opposition.

Republican turnout, when measured against the previous midterms of 1990, was higher in every region of the country; Democratic turnout was down everywhere except in the mid-Atlantic and far West states — with precipitous falloffs among low-income voters, minority voters and young voters. All told, one turnout expert concluded in a report that the '94 midterm "was more of a negative mandate against the Democrats rather than a positive mandate for the Republicans."

Democrats today potentially face the same negative mandate; not only is the Democratic base disillusioned by the stasis on health reform, but polls specifically pinpoint a waning of enthusiasm among the young. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center reports that voters 18 to 29 — Obama's strongest '08 cohort, and the age bracket most supportive of government activism — have "cooled" considerably in their views of Obama and the Democrats. If Democrats want to hasten that cooling process and pay the price in November, botching health reform at the 11th hour is a must.

Obama, speaking last week about the path to passage, declared, "I do not know how this plays politically, but I know it's right." Well, here's how it plays politically, especially for those timorous congressional Democrats who think waving the white flag might be the best way to save their skins in November:

The Republicans will hammer them anyway, either for voting "yes" the first time around (when health reform passed both chambers late last year) or for simply being members of the party that passed it the first time around. And if they vote "no" the second time around this spring, thereby scuttling reform altogether, the Democratic base will hammer them as gutless wonders and simply stay home.

That's the worst Democratic scenario. The best one, admittedly less than ideal, is to get the thing done, reap the upside in a White House signing ceremony, and start selling the benefits to the millions of skeptics who have been overly focused on the downside (thanks in part to the opposition messaging, and the ceaseless news coverage of the endless legislative gridlock). In politics, it's always preferable to be on the march, playing offense. It's tough to convince the voters about anything if you're in retreat.

In fact, the persuasion effort might not be as daunting as generally assumed. A number of surveys — notably, the latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll — show majority support for key reform provisions. Kaiser says that 7 in 10 Americans believe that the government should be (among other things) "reforming the way health insurance works," "providing financial help for lower- and middle-income people," and "creating a health insurance exchange."

Kaiser also says that 58 percent would be "disappointed" or "angry" if the Democratic Congress drops the ball on health reform. Granted, the polls show less support for the specific health reform bills, but the critics include liberals who don't think the bills go far enough, and others who are upset with the endless congressional dithering. At minimum, the Kaiser statistics suggest that, post-passage, Obama and the Democrats would have something to work with.

Obama said the other day, "At stake right now is not just our ability to solve this problem, but our ability to solve any problem. The American people want to know if it's still possible for Washington to look out for their interests and their future." Basically, he was telling the Democrats that if they don't show some guts and get this done, they'll die in droves in November.

Which sounds about right. Not even their own partisans will be motivated to vote for losers.