In Defense of the House 39

Understanding the pressures faced by the 39 House Democrats who voted with Upton.

Most liberals have been denouncing the 39 House Democrats who voted for the Fred Upton Obamacare bill on Friday on the grounds that they voted for a bill that would clearly gut the law. That they did, not much use in denying that. But they're from districts where the law isn't exactly going down so well. And if the Democratic Party ever wants a House majority again, the only way it's going to get that is by electing more people from districts like these.

Besides which, the vote was academic. The Upton bill isn't getting a vote in the Senate, so it was academic. And even if somehow it were to get a vote it would certainly fail--I can see five or six Democrats who might join the 45 Republicans to back it, but not 15, as would be needed. If Upton had a real chance of becoming law, I'd bet a number of those 39 would have voted no.

But the bottom line here is this. If you're a liberal, you want as many Democrats as possible in the House, right? Ideally, 218 or more. Well, the safe Democratic districts number 175, according to Stuart Rothenberg (while there are 208 safe Republican seats). That's 43 short of a majority, so, to get to a majority, the Democrats are going to need a lot of people from swing districts. Would you rather have a Democrat from such a district vote against Upton and lose, giving the seat to a Republican?

Yes, I know, it's not axiomatic that a vote against Upton means a loss. Fight fight fight stand up for your vote etc. But the fact is that not a lot of these people have the fortitude and skill required to do that. It's a hard thing to do. It's not simply a matter of courage, it's a matter of skill, and a matter of a number of factors outside the pol's control. Saying "vote no and go out and defend it" is like saying to a running back "just go out and gain 150 yards." It's just not a thought that can be translated into real-world results very easily.

Rothenberg lists 26 Democrats as in play to varying degrees. So maybe one could argue that there are 13 wimps out there. But I wouldn't be prepared to make that judgment before really studying each of their situations carefully.

Remember when the Democrats won the House majority in 2006? Well, they did it by winning a bunch of purple districts with a bunch of candidates who were pretty centrist. Many lost in 2010. The only way the Democrats are ever going to get a House majority again, and of course it's unlikely to happen until after 2020 because of the GOP gerrymandering, is to elect more people like that from more districts like that. Period. So I cut these people some slack and think you should too.

More broadly, this is another important week in this saga. The White House better start getting control of this story. It's been a crisis; not yet an utter catastrophe. But we don't know which way the needle will move.