Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Boston Massacre and the health care debate

Okay, so a six point political victory isn't quite a massacre. Nevertheless, Scott Brown's victory over Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the open Massachusetts Senate seat is historic in a way that is difficult to overstate. Consider the following:
  • Brown ran as a Republican, in a state in which only 12% of registered voters share that affiliation and in which registered Democrats claim more than 3x that.
  • Brown was running as a Republican to fill a seat that had been occupied by a member of the Kennedy family since 1952 and by Ted Kennedy since I believe 1966.
  • No Republican has been elected to the Senate in Massachusetts since the African-American senator Edward Brooke in 1972. In other words, there hasn't been an election that resulted in a Republican senator from Massachusetts in my lifetime.
  • Scott Brown openly campaigned as the 41st vote against (i.e., the filibuster vote) the Reid-Pelosi-Obama healthcare bill currently making its troubled way through Congress. This, despite the fact that the bill was former Sen. Kennedy's signature issue and was being promoted as his "legacy."
  • Pres. Obama came in to campaign for Coakley in a state he carried by 26%.
In other words, Coakley should have won in a walk. What this means for our national politics going forward is difficult to discern, because it is not yet clear how the Congressional Democrats and the President will respond to this unpredictable, quite stunning, development. As I see it, their options are the following:
  1. Admit defeat on the current bill and start over by negotiating with moderate Republicans in the House and the Senate. In other words, give the Left the shaft (since the hardest leftists occupy the safest seats) and try something centrist that both conservatives and real liberals will hate, but which will have the votes to pass and will give the President his earnestly sought "victory" on health care legislation. I don't think this option very likely, because a) Congressional Dems and the President have already invested so much political capital in this that it would be incredibly humiliating to walk back the bill; and b) Republicans know the bill is a dog, but that fact being obvious will help their party win more elections in the fall. If they offer a lifeline in the form of a compromise bill, that will hurt their party and help the Dems. What would be the upside?
  2. Push for a vote through the budget reconciliation process. This means only 51 votes are required in the Senate. The downside is that this maneuver is a little shady, and given the amount of shadow already covering the bill (the Louisiana Purchase, the Cornhusker Kickback, the union carve-out, etc.), this tactic would probably serve to make the bill even less popular with the voters and make the resulting political fallout even worse. Worse for the Dems, it's not clear that 51 Democratic Senators can even be counted on to vote for this dog, since in light of yesterday's results, it's not clear what a "safe seat" even means anymore. If Ted Kennedy's Senate seat isn't safe, is anyone's?
  3. Slow-walk seating Brown and try to push through a bill with Paul Kirk (the man appointed Senator after Kennedy's death who is filling the seat Brown won in the special election). This option buys you, at most, a few more weeks to try to get a bill passed. There is only so much you can do to slow the certification and seating process. Moreover, the 17th Amendment's language clearly states that Kirk is no longer a senator as soon as one has been elected to replace him. So even trying this would result in a legal and constitutional crisis, which would again worsen the already negative effects of the bill on Dem electoral fortunes.
  4. Make the House swallow the Senate bill. This means that reconciliation of the bill only has to flow one way. Since the Senate has already passed it, Brown's election would no effect on the Senate vote; it would not be going back to the Senate for a re-vote after reconciliation with the House bill. However, the sticking point here is getting enough votes for the Senate bill in the House. The original House bill passed 220 to 215. Joseph Cao (R-La), will not vote to be the passing vote on a Democratic health care bill. Moreover, Robert Wexler (D-Fla) has retired and will not be replaced until the special election in April (which Dems may well lose). Thus they are down to 218 votes already. Finally, and most importantly, Bart Stupak and 10 of his pro-life Dem colleagues in the House have already said they won't vote for the abortion-funding language in the Senate bill. Which means there's little chance of passing the Senate bill in the House, or passing the bill without both houses having to re-vote on the reconciled bill (bringing Brown's vote back into consideration).
My prediction: Eventually there will be something passed which is labeled "health care reform." Dems don't want their President to be left without a victory on his most major domestic initiative. But, if it passes in anything resembling its current form, by whatever means, the Dems are going to lose huge in the fall. Republicans will very likely re-take the House (which may happen regardless) and will gain most of the contested Senate seats, if not control. Calls for repeal will be strong and extensive reform of the current "reform" will result instead. This will present the President with the choice of being either Carter or Clinton. If he goes the Carter route, blindly pushing his principled commitment to left-leaning government, he will wind up discrediting progressivism and his party for a generation and wondering what to do with the rest of his life on January 20th, 2013. If, on the other hand, he wises up before November (or even after), he can preside over divided government, accomplish moderate, more center-left type reform, and coast to re-election in 2012 as a popular New Democrat. I don't know which course he will take, but if the past year is any guide, I'd put my money on the Carter option.

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