Health Care And The 1994 Precedent

by Jonathan Chait | March 15, 2010

There has been a lot of argument over whether passing health care reform or letting it die would offer the most attractive strategy for Democrats. Norman Ornstein and Tom Mann really move the ball down the field by looking more closely at what happened in 1994:

Heading into that election season, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, described the Democrats’ condition bluntly: “Imagine it’s October, and the Democrats are going to get up and make the following case: 'We’ve run the House for 40 years, we’ve run the Senate for eight years, we have the White House, and the Republicans are so much more clever than we are that they’ve obstructed us. We need you to elect more dumb Democrats so we can overcome those clever Republicans.'” Conservative Democratic Senator John Breaux, of Louisiana, echoed that point on health policy, saying, “We can blame the Republicans for filibustering, but we have the responsibility to govern.”
To be sure, there were many reasons for Democrats’ massive losses in 1994, including scandals and angry gun owners. But the failure to fulfill their responsibility for governing contributed mightily to the debacle. That was the conclusion of pollsters from both parties in the aftermath of the November contests. Two weeks after the election, Republican pollster Bill McInturff found that “one of the most important predicates for Republican success was not having health care pass.” He noted that the collapse of the plan reinforced voters’ belief that Washington was in a dysfunctional state of gridlock. At the same time, Democratic pollster Mike Donilon, who worked on the losing campaign of Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, said he believed that Wofford would have won had health reform passed.

Obviously, everybody on the right is now saying that the Democrats would be far better off if they let reform die. I may have a faulty memory, but I don't remember anybody arguing in 1994 that the Democrats had really made a shrewd move by abandoning their legislation.

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