What should Barack Obama do now that Scott Brown has pulled off the biggest special-election upset in a generation? Push through health-care reform, and fast.
There are two arguments against doing so—one moral, one political—and they’re both wrong. The moral argument is that enacting health-care reform in the wake of Brown’s victory would be “undemocratic.” But what does that mean, exactly? I hate to shatter anyone’s illusions, but the United States is not actually a democracy; it’s a representative democracy. At the federal level, Americans don’t vote on whether bills should become law. They elect representatives who vote on whether bills should become law. That means that presidents and members of Congress have the right to defy the will of their constituents; they just have to face the consequences at the ballot box.
A bevy of commentators are warning that pushing through health-care reform will come back to haunt Democrats at the polls this fall. That may be true, but so will not passing it.
Passing health care, therefore, even if most Americans tell pollsters they oppose it, doesn’t violate the spirit of our representative democracy. Republicans certainly didn’t think so when they cheered President Bush’s surge in Iraq, even though most Americans opposed that. It’s a little rich, in fact, for the party that has employed the filibuster to force the White House to corral 60 votes to pass health care in the Senate, and which lustily defended the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s 2000 election, even though he lost the popular vote, to talk about the will of the people.
• Benjamin Sarlin: Doomsday Plan for Health Care • Samuel P. Jacobs: Massachusetts Miracle Besides, when it comes to Obama’s health-care reform effort, the will of the people isn’t entirely clear. It’s true that for several months now, polls have shown that Americans oppose it by 10 points or so. But if passing health care were undemocratic because of those polls, Scott Brown’s election would be irrelevant. What Republicans are claiming is that Brown’s election represents a referendum on health care. How do they know? Yes, Democrat Martha Coakley supported Obamacare, Brown opposed it, and Brown won. But had Ted Kennedy been on the ballot, then the pro-Obamacare candidate almost certainly would have won. In Massachusetts, according to pre-election polls, a majority of likely voters told pollsters that they opposed the health-care reform bills moving through Congress. But in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections last November, majorities told exit pollsters that they supported them. And in last fall’s special House election in upstate New York, a majority of voters expressed support for a public option. Why weren’t those races referendums on health care? Did Republicans view it as undemocratic to oppose health-care reform a year ago, after Obama had made universal care a central element of his presidential campaign, and won that campaign big? Of course not.
If the moral argument against passing health care makes little sense, neither does the political argument. Already, a bevy of commentators are warning that pushing through health-care reform will come back to haunt Democrats at the polls this fall. That may be true, but so will not passing it. Enacting health-care reform will surely enrage the Republican Party’s already-enraged Tea Party base, along with some surly independents. But in both the House and Senate, Democrats have already voted for Obamacare, which means that they’ll be in the crosshairs of those voters no matter what. At least by passing something they will give their own party activists a reason to turn out. (It’s worth remembering that Democrats lost Congress in 1994 not only because their support for tax increases and gun control drove conservatives to the polls, but because their support for NAFTA prompted many liberals to stay home.)
What’s more, many voters say they’re upset about gridlock in Washington. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, about half of the country considers Obama’s first year a failure. If they think that now, imagine how they’ll feel when the single biggest item on his legislative agenda collapses. Democrats have gone through this once before. They abandoned their health-care reform effort in 1994, and voters didn’t exactly reward them for it come fall.
The reality is this. As recently as last summer, a small majority of Americans supported Obama’s health-care reform effort. In the six months since, support has deteriorated in direct proportion to the deterioration in Barack Obama’s approval ratings more generally. The reason has less to do with revelations about the details of Obamacare than with a broader change in the national mood. Obama has massively increased the deficit in a bid to save the economy, and yet the economy—as experienced by most Americans—remains horrendous. In this environment, it’s no surprise that fewer Americans support Obama’s health-care plans. Fewer probably think he’s a good basketball player too.
Ultimately, Obama’s political fortunes will turn on whether Americans feel genuine economic improvement by the time he runs for re-election. If the economy turns around, and he signs health-care reform, he’ll win a major re-election victory and he’ll have had the most significant first term of any Democratic president in four decades. If the economy turns around, and Obama doesn’t sign health-care reform, he’ll be Bill Clinton—a cerebral, eloquent, savvy liberal able to save his own political skin but unable to make profound change. The choice is his.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is an associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.