Politics & Policy

Vulnerable House Democrats Walk the Plank for Impeachment

A man walks past an advertisement for the Democratic National Convention at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C September 2, 2012. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)
Surprisingly, swing-district Democrats have almost all lined up behind impeaching the president. But why?

Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey got the biggest headlines this week when, reluctant to impeach President Trump, he switched from the Democratic to the Republican party. But Van Drew is a notable outlier: Vulnerable House Democrats in purple-to-red districts are, surprisingly, lining up behind impeachment.

One after another, they’re announcing that they will vote to impeach Trump, with the full knowledge that doing so is likely to make their reelection more difficult. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Ben McAdams of Utah, Lizzie Fletcher and Colin Allred of Texas, Sharice Davids of Kansas, Lucy McBath of Georgia, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Angie Craig of Minnesota, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia — if any swing-district House Democrat beyond Van Drew and Collin Peterson of Minnesota would be abandoning ship, it would be members like these. Yet none of them have.

About a decade ago, a different bunch of House Democrats from competitive districts found itself in a similar situation. House speaker Nancy Pelosi had set a priority, one that was non-negotiable for the party’s grassroots. The House GOP was completely united in opposition. Despite a lot of hearings and a relentless effort to sway public opinion, the matter at hand was not polling well in swing states or districts. Most of the Democrats from those jurisidictions could read a poll: Voting yes on “Obamacare,” or the Affordable Care Act, would probably cut their congressional careers short. And 219 out of 253 House Democrats voted “yes” anyway.

The Obamacare vote probably cost Democrats control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms. The evidence is considerable; House Republicans certainly believed that it was a big factor, if not the biggest factor, in their gain of 63 seats. One study attributed 13 House Democrat losses to the vote, and calculated it cost the ones who survived six to eight percentage points from their usual margin of victory. Sure, there were other factors — lingering economic frustrations, the cap-and-trade vote — and the conservative grassroots were particularly energized by the Tea Party that year. Yes, more than a few blue-dog Democrats who voted against Obamacare lost in 2010 as well, and some of them were probably always likely to be one-termers, swept in by the Obama wave of 2008. But the bottom line was, when the party needed their votes on the highest-profile and most controversial bill of the cycle, a lot of swing-district Democrats agreed to walk the plank.

Perhaps in the minds of some Democrats today, voting for impeachment isn’t going to make that big a difference. Most of the 31 House Democrats representing districts that Trump carried in 2016 were probably always going to face tough reelection fights, particularly in a presidential cycle with higher turnout. Many of them may have concluded they were goners either way and decided to vote their consciences. And many of them are also aware that voting against impeachment would almost certainly ensure a well-funded primary challenger, eager to flay them for betraying the party and selling out to Trump.

But it’s still striking that, as of this writing, it appears all but a handful of the Democrats elected in 2018 are willing to vote for impeachment. Either Nancy Pelosi’s ability to enforce party discipline is as formidable as it’s purported to be, quite a few of them think impeachment is worth losing their seats, or both.

Conservatives may chuckle at how these votes will make the GOP’s job in 2020 easier, but they also may feel a pang of envy. Are there any policy priorities that GOP House members are willing to lose their seats to enact? During the two years that they held both houses of Congress and the presidency, from 2016 to 2018, Republicans couldn’t muster the votes for a variety of immigration-reform bills in the House. Big, bloated omnibus spending bills kept the government open. It took many tries for the fractious House GOP majority to come together on a single bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, which then promptly died in the Senate. The same fate befell bills to defund Planned Parenthood and enact concealed-carry reciprocity across states. The era of total GOP control ended with a government shutdown. The president was forced to sign the new Democratic majority’s legislation to reopen the government, failing to secure what he wanted from the impasse.

Republican leaders usually try to avoid putting their members in the position of having to vote on legislation that could cost them their seats. The House GOP did everything it could to avoid losing the majority . . . and then they lost it anyway. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, are sometimes willing to bring up tough votes, to put critical policy priorities above the retention of swing-district seats.

So which approach is smarter? Was the Affordable Care Act the “big f***ing deal” that Joe Biden claimed on a hot mic or a pyrrhic victory for Democrats?

You could argue that the law is far less consequential than advocates thought, because the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have steadily chipped away at it piece after piece. Fourteen states never adopted the Medicaid expansion. In Congress, Republicans found the votes to repeal the individual-mandate penalty and the Independent Payment Advisory Board, the much derided “death panels” that would have made changes to what treatments Medicare would cover. The frequently delayed “Cadillac Tax” — a 40 percent levy on generous health-insurance plans — and the medical-device tax are likely to get repealed entirely in the upcoming budget bill. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is considering whether the entire law has become unconstitutional without the individual-mandate penalty in place.

But if the aim of Obamacare was to get more Americans insured by the government, and to force insurers to do more for patients, it worked. About 15 million more people enrolled in Medicaid as a result of the ACA. At the end of the Obama administration, the Department of Health and Human Services calculated that 20 million American adults gained health insurance before the individual-mandate penalty was repealed. The law requires insurers to allow adult children to stay on their parents’ health plans until they’re 26 and to cover people who have pre-existing health conditions at no additional charge. It also requires that policies provide preventive care at no out-of-pocket cost and bans annual and lifetime cost limits on what insurers will cover. Democrats effectively expanded an existing entitlement, and those changes to the law will probably never be repealed because of their popularity.

In that long-term sense, the Affordable Care Act was the signature achievement of the Obama presidency for many Democrats. They wanted the government to step in and manage 1/6 of the nation’s economy, and in many ways, they got it. The “Overton Window” of plausible policy ideas moved considerably to the Left — no one expects Republicans to repeal the popular parts of Obamacare even if they do win back the House, and Democrats believe that a win in 2020 could bring about Medicare for All and the end of private health insurance.

And none of it would’ve been possible without House members willing to lose their seats by taking an unpopular vote.

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