After their drubbing in the 2014 elections, and with 2016 around the corner, you'd think the last thing Democrats would be doing is relitigating the history of ObamaCare's passage. You would be wrong.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) gave a speech to the National Press Club this week arguing that Democrats should never have done health care reform. Tom Edsall followed up in The New York Times, asking whether ObamaCare is "destroying the Democratic Party."
Schumer is correct that failing to fix the economy was a political disaster for Democrats. But the obstacle there was Democrats themselves, not health care reform. Democrats displayed an infuriating inability to understand both their own self-interest and the nature of the problems that faced the country — and Schumer's Friday morning quarterbacking is evidence that they still haven't learned their lesson.
First, apropos of Paul Krugman, let's consider an alternate history that might have won Democrats the 2010 election. The moment Obama is inaugurated, Senate Democrats use their supermajority to pass a stimulus twice as big as the Recovery Act, plus 25 percent to be safe, plus additional triggers for more stimulus in case unemployment didn't come down fast enough, topped off with a big homeowner assistance package. They immediately fill empty seats on the Federal Reserve board with fervent advocates of monetary stimulus. They pass aggressively left-wing health care reform — what came out of the House, or universal Medicare.
With the help of filibuster reform, all this could have been done at the same time. Indeed, this agenda could have been polished off in a couple of months, instead of wasting weeks of floor time letting cloture petitions ripen. This program could have easily gotten unemployment down to 5-6 percent. It would have inspired massive enthusiasm and turnout among Democrats.
In reality, the stimulus was too small (which was painfully obvious at the time). Homeowner assistance was a colossal failure. ObamaCare, a bloated mix of conservative and liberal proposals, was caricatured as a commie assault on freedom anyway. By election month in 2010, unemployment was 9.8 percent, only two tenths of a percentage point from its peak in 2009.
The reason all this happened is that Democrats, especially in the Senate, are a bunch of spineless porridge creatures, wholly owned by the financial sector, who continually failed to grasp that being cautious and timid in power during a huge recession was highly politically risky. They were obsessed with ridiculous Beltway shibboleths like the deficit, and got slaughtered at the polls as a result.
If Democrats want to win elections by the margins necessary to be able to govern, they have to become the egalitarian party they claim to be. And to do so, they've got to throw some seriously outdated attitudes over the side. Just look at Schumer's complaints that only a third of people without health insurance are even registered to vote — so why cater to them?
Setting aside the shocking cynicism of such an argument (and that both he and Edsall badly misunderstand the technical character of the uninsured), it's completely nuts that he doesn't regard those potential voters as an opportunity. Perhaps securing those downtrodden people some concrete benefits might inspire some political loyalty and mobilization? But no.
Democrats need to stop rehashing the political history of 2009. ObamaCare is forever stapled to the Democratic hide, and the right way to do health care both politically and substantively is to move forward, not backward. Add a public option. Make the subsidies more generous. Decrease the Medicare eligibility age, and keep expanding Medicaid.
Democrats worked for an entire year on that law. It's not remotely good enough, but abandoning their signature accomplishment of the past two decades out of political cowardice will just throw millions of people off their insurance.
Most of all, Democrats need to stop worrying so dang much about being criticized. Citing the politics as "too toxic," Kevin Drum at Mother Jones claims that real help for underwater homeowners was never in the cards. That was the issue that set off Rick Santelli's original Tea Party rant, after all. But the real problem was that Democrats paid that vicious clown any heed. How many divisions does Santelli have anyway?
Far better to do what's right on the merits and mobilize people around genuine success.