Jonathan Chait

Your Questions Answered: Ramesh Ponnuru

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Ramesh Ponnuru writes for National Review:

A Question for Jonathan Chait

His argument stresses the political interests of Democrats in passing a bill that they have spent a year working on. What I haven't seen from Chait, or anyone else, is an explanation of why it is in the individual political interest of a few House Democrats who voted no on the Pelosi bill to vote yes now. I can see why it might be in someone's interest to flip to a no vote. But if the bill is going to pass, it needs the support of at least a few former no votes.

Good question. My reasoning has concerned the collective interest of the Democratic Party. Passing health care reform is the difference between a bad mid-term election where lots of Democrats lose their seats but some lucky vulnerable incumbents survive and a slaughter where Republicans not only gain control of the House but many seats besides. However, as Ramesh points out, it's also in the individual interest of those Democrats who voted no on the original bill to do so again, in order to demonstrate their moderation and distance from the national party. So why would anybody vote yes?

I'd argue that the collective interest that those Democrats share in passing a bill outweighs their individual interest in voting no. I'd order the scenarios for Democrats who voted no on the original bill as follows, from best to worst:

1. They vote no, bill passes

2. They vote yes, bill passes

3. They vote no, bill fails

4. They vote yes, bill fails

The largest drop, I'd argue, lies between 2 and 3. If the bill fails, despite having passed both chambers of Congress and having presidential support, then Democratic voters will be justifiably enraged with their Congressional representation. They'll all suffer the voters' wrath, but those who voted no will have the least protection.

The trick for the Democrats is to figure out which 1s have to become 2s and persuade them to take the plunge. It's not easy. In 1994, Democrats had to wring some members to vote for the Clinton budget -- which reduced the deficit by reducing spending and raising taxes on upper-income households and was therefor unpopular. For the 218th vote, they got Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a freshman Representative from a GOP-leaning district who had declared herself against the budget. Republicans -- who, naturally, were describing the Clinton budget as a radical left-wing big government power grab -- sang "Bye-bye Marjorie" on the House floor. (Mezvinsky did lose her seat, which she would have anyway, but she gained hero status and her son wound up marrying Chelsea Clinton. Vulnerable Dems with Sasha and Malia-aged sons who might like to be an Obama in-law might bear this in mind.)

Mezvinksy's example points to somethign I noted earlier. My argument focused mainly but not entirely on political self-interest. Elected officials -- at least those who aren't Harold Ford -- do generally care about policy outcomes. They put their self-interest first, but at the margin they're often willing to take risks to help bring about outcomes they desire. Mezvinsky voted for the Clinton budget knowing full well she was ending her Congressional career by doing so. Voting for health care reform is a vastly larger accomplishment and one far more likely to inspire members to take risks to achieve.

If and when Obama and the House leadership whip the vote to pass the bill, they'll probably be talking about how the failure of health care reform will cause the whole party to go down in flames. But I suspect they'll also be talking about history and morality. They'll ask Democrats if they want to go the rest of their lives meeting people who have suffered enormous pain from a brutal health care system knowing they could have helped them but didn't. I think at least some Democrats would respond to that appeal.

Of course, this only works if you can get within a handful of votes first. Quite possibly the Democrats won't even get close enough to try. If they do, however, I think they will get over the top. Nobody is going to want to go into the 2010 elections, or history, as the person who killed health care reform.

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