JONATHAN CHAIT JANUARY 20, 2010
The headline on the New York Times this morning reads, "GOP Senate Victory Stuns Democrats." Literally speaking, this is utterly false. I know many people who are plugged into Democratic circles, and every indication I had was that the party expected to lose last night -- probably by a much, much wider margin than they actually did. In this sense there was no surprise.
But in a broader sense, it's true. Even though the result, in some ways, exceeded their worst expectations, Democrats have responded as if they were stunned. Human psychology is like that. It's one thing to know you're about to get dumped when your girlfriend says we need to talk. It's another to experience it when it happens.
Still, it's fairly amazing to me to see the Democrats reacting with such hysteria. It's not just moderates trying to position themselves to the center. Barney Frank and Anthony Weiner are acting like pathetic, emotional cowards. They seem to think that one very attractive candidate beating a hapless foe amounts to a national referendum to which every other member of Congress is bound.
Remember when Ted Kennedy died? For a couple days, everybody thought this was somehow going to change the fundamental dynamics of health care reform, that even Republicans would rally to the cause of their late colleague's life. I am not claiming any special genius to note that I found this unbelievably naive. The fundamentals of the situation had not changed. What mattered was who had the votes. And now, the Republicans are trying to take advantage of Kennedy's death to kill reform. Fundamentals, not the emotion of the moment, are what matter.
The fundamentals of the situation remain exactly the same. Most Americans oppose health care reform. However, a significant chunk -- enough to form a sizable majority when combined with supporters -- oppose it because it doesn't go far enough. Which is to say, the Democrats' position commands the center in a polarized atmosphere. Moreover, both chambers have already voted for a bill and set themselves up to be attacked for tax hikes, Medicare cuts and all the rest. The only chance the Democrats have to change that perception is to pass the bill, so that it can be explained in the context of success rather than as a tar baby subjected to endless criticism. If they let it die, they not only keep all the baggage of their votes, but they add a general stench of failure and profound demoralization of the base to their burdens. That would be a recipe not just to lose the House but to lose 50, 60, 80 seats.
Here is what I think will happen. The shock and panic will play itself out over a few days. Then the Democrats will assess the situation and realize that letting health care die represents their worst possible option. And then they will make a deal to pass the Senate bill through the House. I am not positive this will happen, but it's my bet, because elected officials at the national level, dim though they can be, are usually shrewd enough to recognize their political self-interest.
In the meantime, the display of hysteria is actually disgusting.