JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 1, 2010
Speaking on "Meet the Press" yesterday, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor suggested that Democrats would pay a huge political price for passing health care reform:
I'll tell you one thing, if Speaker Pelosi rams through this bill through the House using the reconciliation process, they will lose their majority in Congress in November.
A couple points. First, I think Democrats are probably going to lose their majority no matter what, though the carnage will look a whole lot worse if they don't pass health care reform. Second, what exactly is the pretense for Cantor offering this advice? I understand that when Michael Gerson urges Democrats to save their majority by letting the reform they spent a year on collapse in defeat, we're supposed to think he's offering this advice as a newspaper pundit rather than a Bush administration loyalist who badly wants to see Bush's successor humbled.
But why should anybody take Cantor's advice seriously? His job is to help Republicans win control of the House. If he had acquired information suggesting that the passage of health care would make his job easier, would he really convey it to the Democrats? Imagine Pepsi discovered through its research department that Coke was about to launch a disastrous rebranding campaign that would allow Pepsi to win the dominant share of the soda market. Would Pepsi executives take to the airwaves to warn Coke away from its mistake? This whole process of politicians offering strategic advice to their competitors seems bizarre.
Meanwhile, Joe Scarborough, a former Republican House member, recalls:
I ran against a guy in '94 who said he was against Clinton's health care plan and then I got him to say he was against Clinton's tax increases, then I got him to say he's against Clinton's crime control bill. So I would sit there in the debate, and finally the fourth question I asked him was, did you even vote for him in '92? You get these people in the middle trying to have it both ways, they're so easy to knock over. Sometimes I think it is better to have somebody stand up and say, yeah, I support the health care bill, and let me tell you why.
This sort of advice can easily be (and often is) overstated -- in general, the center is a much stronger place to be. But I do think that politicians can overstate the value of moving to the center, and there are times when you need some ground to stand on. In this case, the Democratic Party has such a huge political investment in health care passing that each member's collective interest in passing a bill overwhelms the individual interest in positioning closer to the center. You're better off helping make sure the ship doesn't sink than trying to secure your spot on a lifeboat.