After years of journalistic, academic, and even medical tut-tutting about politically apathetic Americans, we are now witnessing a strongly motivated, fired-up populace eager to make its opinions known to its elected leaders.
Needless to say, having finally gotten the widespread, passionate grassroots activism that they yearned for over so many years, our political and media elites are shrieking in horror and declaring it an abomination, with Mark Halperin, editor-at-large and senior political analyst for Time magazine, declaring himself “embarrassed about what’s going on as an American.”
But at the heart of the widespread and fairly bipartisan “people ought to get active!” philosophy is the assumption that an engaged, active citizenry can make a difference; it is simply presumed that if a lawmaker hears a large number of his constituents expressing a strong opinion on an issue, he will be at least wary of defying popular will. Slate’s Mickey Kaus wrote not too long ago:
Is it possible that Dem politicians are in for an August of furious town hall feedback so brutal that it all becomes absurd and breeds a grim, amused fatalism that actually steels them to proceed on health care? Just asking. . . . If you’re going to die, might as well die having enacted universal health care. . . . Remember how Tom DeLay and the GOP reacted to their drubbing at the polls in 1998 on the impeachment issue? (They went ahead and impeached.)
The good news for those who oppose the health-care legislation put forth by congressional Democrats is that they’ve had a real impact on public opinion: According to Gallup, support for the bill is down 21 percent in a little over three weeks. The bad news is that all of the public anger seen at the town halls may prove ultimately irrelevant to the odds of passage.
If you asked House Democrats what they most wanted to leave as their legacy in public office, it’s a good bet that a healthy number would offer a variation of “a government-managed health-care plan that is available to every American citizen.” Some would classify it as “single payer,” others would want the “public option,” but they all add up to a massive new entitlement, in which Americans depend upon the federal government for their health care. Conservatives have dreaded it; looking around the globe, they know that once created, these programs are just about politically impossible to repeal.
Many congressional Democrats, told that passage of the sweeping health-care legislation will cost them their seats, may find the choice a harder decision than many observers think. Yes, no one should doubt a politician’s instinct for self-preservation. But it’s quite possible that long-serving Democrats might want to enact a sweeping social change instead of taking the safe route.
The average age of a member of Congress this year is 58.2 years, about a year and half older than the last Congress and among the highest of any Congress in recent history. The average House member is 57 years old and has served an average of 11 years; the average senator is 63.1 years old and has served 12.2 years. For those who find the current annual salary of $174,000 too modest, life after office offers many lucrative opportunities in lobbying, teaching, talking-head punditry, consulting, and book deals.
Even if a member of Congress found the power and status tough to relinquish, a politically risky vote might still be worth the risk. A House seat lost in 2010 can be won back in some other cycle. Among the Democratic senators, only 18 are up in 2010.
Democratic opportunities to achieve long-desired legislative goals are much rarer. With the early political outlook for 2010 favoring Republicans, and a corresponding slow, steady decline in Obama’s numbers, Democrats will probably never get a better chance to enact agenda items than now.
The alternative — for no bill to be passed, or for a House with more than 250 Democrats and a Senate with 60 to pass watered-down, innocuous legislation — might be much more devastating to Democrats as a whole. It would be the ultimate illustration of their powerlessness, and probably provoke a furious backlash from the party’s own grassroots, driven by an intense sense of betrayal. MSNBC host Ed Schultz is already referring to Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska as a “weed”; Ned Lamont–style challenges to Blue Dogs would be a near-certainty in future cycles. The infighting and finger-pointing would be furious, while the conservative grassroots would exult in triumph at their ability to hinder President Obama’s most important domestic initiative from a political position that was widely perceived to be irrelevance.
“I can see very senior members in both houses embracing the view that this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to pass universal health care and damn the torpedoes,” said Fred Wszolek, a veteran GOP political consultant currently based in South Carolina. “But I really doubt there is a lot of that feeling among the members who just got to Washington. I bet those who were just elected in 2006 and 2008, the majority makers, aren’t quite as willing to cap off their ‘career’ just yet.”
Still, we’re hearing some members articulate that their votes might run against their constituents’ passions. Rep. David Wu (D., Ore.) has had one of the roughest recesses, at one point unable to promise an angry constituent that he would vote against any bill that he had not read. Now he’s telling constituents that he will vote with “his heart” on reform even if constituents continue to urge him to vote against it.
Come September, it’s quite possible we’ll see quite a few Democrats who got an earful and a half at their town meetings coming out and offering a dramatic justification: “I know this is controversial, I know my constituents have serious worries, but this is the right thing to do and I’ll be willing to accept the consequences.”
There may be other members of Congress who will proudly disregard opinion in their districts. Lawmakers who call their constituents “un-American” and “political terrorists” and compare them to the Klan and Timothy McVeigh almost express pride in disregarding the distant mewling of the unwashed masses foolish enough to elect them. Between the two approaches, enough Democrats could find their cover and the bill could very well pass along heavily partisan lines.
The irony is that the conservative grassroots have done a lot right in this fight. They’ve identified several angles of attack (the deficit, financial incentives for end-of-life counseling, unaccountable treatment-review boards, funding for abortion, access to doctors, the gradual squeezing out of private insurers, the dubious claims of cost savings from “preventive care” and “wellness programs”). Unlike some members of Congress, they’ve read the bill. They’ve shown up in droves, they’ve made their voices heard, and their expressions of their deeply held views have stunned more than a few members of Congress.
Yet all of that may not be enough. This may be the legislation that Democrats are willing to sacrifice their congressional majorities over.
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.