Politics & Policy

Inverse Reaction

House Democrats may fear the consequences of not passing a bill more than any other.

The Tea Party movement in all its myriad forms — free-market groups, little old ladies, crusty in flag hats, fans of Beck’s 9/12 Project — have done everything one could possibly ask to derail a government takeover of the health-care system. It will be a perverse irony if their high-visibility protests end up persuading Democrats to damn the torpedoes in the face of near-certain electoral doom.     

This Thursday — two days after Republicans won the governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, and two days before the House of Representatives is slated to vote on its version of Obamacare — some 10,000 Tea Party activists turned out on Capitol Hill, on relatively short notice, to attend a rally and to make “house calls” on their members.

  

The midday rally featured all the trademarks of the movement: teabags, yellow-and-black “Kill the Bill” signs, chants of “Reform yourself, not us,” the opening music of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” A new wrinkle was signs using the logo from V, ABC’s new alien-invasion television series that some have argued feels like an allegory of the Obamamania that swept the country last year. Tea Party organizers also held rallies at members’ district offices around the country.

While Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R., Minn.) was the headliner of the Capitol Hill rally, Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor also appeared, making clear that the rally and its message represented a wider swath of the House GOP than only conservative diehards like Bachmann and Steve King of Iowa. Cantor got one of the biggest roars when he pledged that the Pelosi-backed version of the bill would, like the stimulus legislation, receive no Republican votes in the House.

Washington is used to Capitol Hill protests, and not just from groups on the left, as the annual March for Life demonstrates. But by most standards, this event was eyebrow raising — thousands of people turning out at noon on a weekday, with only a few days’ warning.

Just about everything the Tea Partiers have been asked to do, they’ve done with relish — the Tax Day protest, the angry crowds at congressional town-hall meetings this summer, the 9/12 rally on the Mall in Washington. Obama’s overall approval rating has steadily slid for most of the year, and his approval rating on health care has been under water (more disapproval than approval) for months now. His influence with voters appears to be waning: He pulled out all the stops for Jon Corzine in New Jersey, with rallies in Newark and Camden on the Sunday before Election Day; two days later, Corzine got considerably fewer votes in those cities than four years ago.

So all of this ought to have Democrats quaking in their boots and terrified of casting a vote for the heath-care bill, right?

Perhaps not.

In August, I wrote, “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.”

Since then, the brutal choice facing Democrats has only become clearer: Voting for the Pelosi bill may cause dozens of them to lose their seats. But the other option may be even worse.

Prognosticators and campaign analysts are now saying that Republicans have a serious chance of retaking the House in 2010. But Democratic incumbents may be facing the choice of passing a health-care bill and trying to get re-elected in an atmosphere where the conservative grassroots are furiously energized, or failing to pass it and trying to get re-elected in races where the liberal grassroots are either completely dispirited or furious with them. And in the latter scenario, it’s hard to see the conservative grassroots taking their side.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat who represents the northern Virginia suburbs where Bob McDonnell won narrowly and the even more explicitly conservative Ken Cuccinelli got nearly half the vote, told the Washington Post the day after the election, “I concluded from last night, we’ve got to pass health care,” adding that Democratic members have to make sure they give Democratic voters something to be excited about.

Failure to pass a health-care bill would represent a nearly unparalleled political catastrophe for Democrats. For years, when explaining why their agenda has not yet passed, Democratic leaders said to their grassroots, “We don’t have the votes.” When they retook Congress in 2006, they said they needed the White House and 60 senators to overcome filibusters. The Democratic grassroots have now delivered just about every winnable seat, giving President Obama the same number of Democrats in the House that Bill Clinton began with (257, including the two elected this week, Bill Owens of New York and John Garamendi of California) and, in the Senate, 60 Democrats or independents aligned with the Democrats (three more than Clinton ever had).

Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the rest of the congressional Democrats have no excuses left. Many conservatives feel that Republican congressional leadership has jerked them around for years, over-promising and under-delivering, but today that sentiment may be even stronger on the left. If serious government expansion into the delivery of health care and provisions like the public option are not passed in this session, it seems likely that they will never pass.

Back in August, Rep. David Wu (D., Ore.) was open about his disregard for opposition in his district, telling constituents that he would vote with his heart on reform even if they continued to urge him to vote against it. Those closely watching the House races shaping up for next year believe that the health-care vote will be huge — perhaps make-or-break — in the re-election prospects of Democrats Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Baron Hill of Indiana, Bobby Bright of Alabama, Bruce Braley and Leonard Boswell of Iowa, John Spratt of South Carolina, Ike Skelton of Missouri, Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, Alan Grayson and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida, Vic Snyder of Arkansas, and Gerry Connolly, Glenn Nye, and Tom Perriello of Virginia.

Thursday brought block-long lines of anti-Obamacare protesters to all entrances of the House office buildings, an intimidating sight. But it may not be intimidating enough. Given the choice of passing a bill and between losing their seats, or not passing a bill and losing their seats, most House Democrats would pick the former. Many of them will approach the coming vote as men and women with not much left to lose.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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