The Dumbest Ideas In DC #458: Passing Unpopular Legislation Helps You Win!

One of the oddest ideas floating around the fever swamps of Washington, D.C. is that parties benefit from passing wildly unpopular legislation because at least they’ve “done something.”

Republicans during the Bush years were guilty of this sort of thinking at times — immigration and John McCain’s reaction to the financial crisis immediately come to mind — but, the Democrats are proving to be just as dunderheaded over health care.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I can understand why liberals want socialized medicine. I could also understand if they made a political calculation that it was worth losing significantly more seats in 2010 to pass it. In the same situation, if Republicans had a chance to pass some conservative dream, like the Fair Tax, a nationalized school voucher program, or a constitutional Amendment forbidding gay marriage, but the price turned out to be losing a few more people like Olympia Snowe and Lindsey Graham, I’d probably say “go for it,” too.

However, most liberals don’t seem to be making that argument. Their argument is that passing a wildly unpopular, Byzantine nightmare of a health care bill that includes a tax increase and Medicare cuts is just the ticket to winning in 2010.

For example, here’s part of a Bob Shrum column from today spinning what he views as a happy alternative future and explaining (seriously, I might add) that the Democrats were creamed in 1994 because they didn’t pass Clinton’s unpopular health care bill:

Democrats, too, could read history and were determined not to repeat it. They hadn’t acted as an effective governing party since the mid-1960s (Hawkins’ Note: That line is funny because it’s true. Lol); unlike Republicans, they’ve regularly abandoned Presidents of their own party on signature proposals — Carter on energy, Clinton on health care. The breaks represented a political calculation to assure their own electoral survival. Both times this was a miscalculation; in 1994, when Republicans swept to control of Congress, the most prominent victims included the most self-consciously “moderate” Democrats who had conspicuously separated themselves from Clinton on health care. They were punished at the polls for his failure.

Knowing this, Obama gave the Democratic “Blue Dogs” room to object to reform proposals, and the chance to claim subsequently that their qualms had been addressed. This was the real aim — and genius — of his ostensibly bipartisan negotiations. The Blue Dogs might not have been enthused about walking the plank on health reform with him, but they preferred that to the threat of another Gingrich Revolution decimating their ranks and dooming their committee chairmanships.

First of all, this sort of analysis, common though it may be on the Left, explains why Bob Shrum is 0-for-8 in the presidential elections he has been involved with.

Now you might be thinking, “Well, these guys really know their business. I’m sure there is some important reason that passing unpopular legislation that makes everyone furious is actually a big plus even if I don’t know what it is.”

Honestly, there isn’t. Passing unpopular legislation is passing unpopular legislation. If you take your car to a mechanic and he accidentally pours a bag of sand into your engine, you don’t say, “Wow, I like that guy who destroyed the engine in my car. Sure, he did a lot of damage but at least he did something!” It’s no different with politicians.

Let me give you some numbers and analysis to back that up from one of the better columns I’ve read in the last few months. It’s from an attorney, Sean Trende, who did some excellent research on the Republican wave that hit in 1994:

1994 was fundamentally a culling of Democrats who were too liberal for their Republican-leaning districts. Republicans defeated 34 incumbents that year. Twenty six of these incumbents came from districts that had Republican PVIs[1]; of the remaining eight incumbents, one was under indictment, one had proclaimed how proud he was to grow his own marijuana, four came from Washington state (which had a tsunami-within-a-tsunami), and two were just kind of unlucky.

There were two controversial pieces of legislation that defined the Clinton Administration for Republican-leaning voters: the assault weapons ban and the first Clinton budget (a.k.a. the tax hike). If we look at the fifteen Democrats who voted against both pieces of legislation, only one lost (she represented a district that gave Bush a 15-point win in 1992). In fact, about half of them saw their share of the vote increase or stay roughly the same from 1992!

Let’s move on to Democratic incumbents who represented Republican-leaning districts who voted for only one of these two pieces of legislation. There were thirty-seven such Democrats. The casualty rate here is a little higher; thirteen of them, or thirty-five percent of them, lost. And of the twenty-two Democrats from Republican-leaning districts who voted for both pieces of controversial legislation, ten of them (45%) lost.

In other words, the problem for Democrats in 1994 was not that they didn’t support Clinton’s agenda enough. It was that they got too far out in front of their conservative-leaning districts and supported the President too much.

We can use a more quantitative approach. I constructed a simple regression model to try to measure what factors played a role in Democrats’ downfall in 1994. If you want the nitty gritty of the model, you can click this footnote [2]. But the bottom line is that, holding all other things equal, a Democrat in a Republican district who voted for the assault weapons ban lost 4.2 percentage points off of his 1992 numbers. If the same Democrat voted for the Clinton budget, she lost 3.7 points. In other words, these two votes alone could take a Democrat who won a comfortable election with 56 percent of the vote in 1992, and turn her into a loser in 1994.

…Right now, almost all of the 60 or so Democrats in Republican PVI districts have cast a controversial (in Republican districts) vote on Obama’s stimulus plan. Many of them have voted for cap-and-trade. Unless public opinion changes substantially, many of them will be pressured to cast an extremely controversial vote on the health bill. These Democrats don’t need this vote.

I would also note that Trende doesn’t mention the bailout vote right at the end of Bush’s term. Because that happened right before the election and has stayed in the news so much, I suspect it will come up in quite a few election races as well — and we haven’t even gotten into 2010 yet. Who knows how many more controversial votes are left to go? How often can Democrats keep voting for legislation that is poison with the general public and still manage to keep their jobs?

What it all comes down to is that socialized medicine is near and dear to the hearts of liberal Democrats and no matter how unpopular it is, they may simply say “Damn the torpedoes” and vote for it. However, they shouldn’t delude themselves into believing that they are going to be somehow helped by slashing Medicare, implementing a new tax, and by playing dangerous political games with people’s very lives. This vote will undoubtedly be a career ender for many of the Democrats in competitive districts who support it.

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