Last week, the La Pietra Dialogues, held at the renaissance villa that is the heart of NYU's campus in Florence, convened the second annual trans-Atlantic conversation on American politics and policy. Last year, Obama was the focus—and he still is. Even at this distance, he is clearly seen as the center of gravity, and the panelists in Florence analyzed everything from the prospects for health-care legislation to the upcoming elections in November—and the midterms beyond—in the context of Obama’s pull.
At La Pietra, all agreed that health care is a pivot point for Democrats. So what happens if reform fails? Specifically, which congressional candidates, in the event of a Clinton-like implosion on health care, would be prime candidates for the midterm chopping block? Nearly 4,000 miles from Florence, an answer was unfolding in the off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey—an answer that reinforces the judgment of history.
First, the history. Blue Dog Democrats who abandoned Bill Clinton on health care in 1994 were conspicuous among the casualties of that November's congressional elections. Their flight from Clinton alienated Democrats without placating other voters. Just ask Sen. David McCurdy of Oklahoma or Sen. Jim Cooper of Tennessee.
Oops, they're not senators. Both were favorites who lost their respective races after calculated decisions to turn away from Clintoncare. If they had stayed the course, they might not have won; but in 1994, they and others proved that apostasy is not the path to victory. (McCurdy now runs a trade association. Cooper is back in Congress after eight years in the wilderness.)
History is now repeating itself in Virginia, where Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee for governor, faces a nearly impassable gap in the polls less than two weeks before the election. Deeds announced a general principle: "I am not afraid of going against my fellow Democrats when I think they're wrong." He applied this principle during and after the final debate of the campaign by seemingly renouncing the public option on health care. It "isn't required in my view," he said, then added that as governor, he "would certainly consider opting out." Then, in a post-debate press conference, Deeds backpedaled, saying everything, including the public option, "was on the table."
Not only do the polls show him an average of 10 points behind, but the latest Survey USA numbers report that his conservative Republican opponent is carrying an incredible 55 percent of the vote in what should be the Democratic heartland of Northern Virginia. Maybe that’s why the Deeds campaign is schizophrenic—backing away from the Democratic base on issues, but then importuning President Obama to rally it by coming into the state. This episode should be instructive to those Democrats across the Potomac who may be tempted to "save" themselves by walking away from their party on health care. Like Deeds, they may find themselves instead stumbling towards their doom.
Farther up the Eastern Seaboard, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, who was generally regarded as a sure loser last summer—trailing his opponent by as much as 15 points—has fought back to a tie or even a narrow lead in his re-election bid, despite the state's economic woes. (Disclosure: Corzine is a friend, and I was a strategist in his 2000 Senate and his 2005 gubernatorial campaigns. I am retired now, but rooting hard for him.)
To be sure, Corzine has been helped both by the presence of a third-party candidate and by the ineptitude of his Republican opponent, Chris Christie, a "reforming" former U.S. attorney, who has been tripped up by scandals involving Karl Rove and Christie's own alleged misconduct in office.
While New Jersey is a blue state, its voters are angry both about the recession and property taxes—which Corzine has cut, but not, they think, by enough. He has also cut the budget, year on year, below its previous levels, but Corzine refuses to yield on core Democratic values. He's campaigned on health care, which has been a key message in his advertising. He's rejected the Deeds' tack of promising tax cuts that the state may not be able to afford. And by focusing on the economy, Corzine, whatever his own problems, has exposed Christie as an empty suit on the issue that ranks highest among voters.
The outcome in New Jersey will probably be a nail-biter, but the Corzine lesson is that Democrats are better off being Democrats than trying to triangulate themselves into some dubious pale blue mutation.
At La Pietra, New York Times chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney noted the migration of horse-race coverage from the campaign season to the governing process. There is a tendency to call the contest before it is over, a temptation in this hyper-drive media world to be first—even at the risk of being wrong. So there was reporting that the stimulus was dead not long before it was signed. And there has been reporting that the Blue Dogs will surely dump the public option—despite a potential Chuck Schumer compromise to let individual states opt out—which may successfully square the circle.
Unlike 1994, this time both liberal and moderate Democrats understand the danger if they don't pass a credible health-care bill. That’s why, in the end, they will. And they may be propelled in that direction by reading not just the history of 1994, but the election returns of 2009 in Virginia and New Jersey.