More On Why Health Care Reform Will Pass

by Jonathan Chait | September 8, 2009

Jonathan Cohn and Marc Ambinder add some more points to my contention that August actually was no so bad for health care reform. To me, the key point is that health care will probably pass because it's in Democrats' interest for it to pass. A failed health care plan is a disaster for the entire party. Obama would go down in flames, and moderate Democrats would go down with him.

National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru is skeptical:

The conventional wisdom says that for Democrats to fail to pass major legislation on health care would be a political catastrophe for them. Supposedly it was a similar failure that cost them control of Congress in the 1994 elections.

That's a misreading of what happened in 1994. What hurt Democrats was not that they failed to pass the Clintons' health-care plan; it was that they tried to pass it. The plan was unpopular.

The Democrats who could actually lose their seats over health care come from districts or states that typically vote for Republicans. Does anyone really think that voters in Arkansas would punish Senator Blanche Lincoln for going along with Obamacare? Isn't it far more likely that voters would punish her for supporting it?

Ramesh is missing the point. Of course it is in the individual interests of Democrats in conservatve districts to vote against health care reform. But it is in their collective interest for such a plan to pass. Indeed, the political failure of the Clinton health care plan was part of what made it unpopular. It was described as the "failed Clinton plan," endlessly dissected for its weaknesses, elevated into an emblem of big government, and turned into a millstone around the neck of the whole Democratic Party. If the plan actually passes, none of these things will happen.

The Democrats have a collective action problem. Collectively, they need health care reform to pass, but individually, many have to vote against it. Collective action problems are difficult. When the default action is to do nothing, usually nothing happens. That's why fishermen can completely deplete the ocean of a species of fish -- there never comes a point when it is in any individual's interest to stop fishing.

But the health care dynamic is different. If the White House can just keep the process moving forward, there will be a vote on health care reform. In the House, there's plenty of margin for Democrats to play with. I assume many moderates will vote no with the understanding that it's a free vote. No serious person thinks the House will kill health care reform.

The Senate is where the action is. And at some point, assuming Massachusetts gets its second Senator, some Democrat is going to have to vote to filibuster health care reform to death. That's the part I have trouble envisioning -- the active step of killing what has been the centerpiece of the Democratic agenda for sixty years.

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