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10 Reasons Why Democrats Who Opposed the Health Care Bill Made a Political Mistake

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Robert Creamer Political Organizer, Strategist, Author; Partner Democracy Partners

Even if you completely ignore how critical it is to reform the broken American health care system, most of the 39 Democrats who voted against health care reform in the House last week made a political mistake. Here's why:

1). The most basic reason is that the major elements of the bill are popular in the districts of the members who voted no.

For instance, the firm of Anzalone Liszt recently released the results of a poll it conducted in 91 Democratic Blue Dog, Rural Caucus and Frontline districts (those most vulnerable to Republicans). The poll found that 54% of the voters in these battleground districts support the choice of a public option. Provisions like ending the ability of insurance companies to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions have over 80% support.

What's more, many voters in the districts of Members of Congress who voted no have particularly large numbers of downscale working class voters who are uninsured at some point in any given year - and would qualify for subsidies under the bill. The more they learn about the bill, the more they will like it.

2). Once the bill is passed it will become even more popular. Social Security, Medicare, and child labor laws were all controversial when they were first passed. Now they are all revered features of the American landscape. The same will be true of the health insurance reform that makes health care a right for all Americans.

By Election Day a year from now, the elements of health care reform will be even more popular in these districts than they are today. The only problem will be that the Democratic Member representing the district will have voted on the wrong side of history.

3). As former President Bill Clinton noted in his comments to Senate Democrats, history shows clearly that the party that nationalizes the mid-term elections is far more likely to emerge victorious. Nationalizing the 2010 mid-term election means running a national campaign that focuses on the successes and plans of the Obama Administration and Democratic Congress.

If the job picture has begun to improve, and the Congress passes the bulk of the Obama legislative program, the Democratic message will be very strong. If it does not, next November 2nd will be a very long night.

The Members of Congress with the biggest stake in the party's success nationalizing the election are the most vulnerable members - a number of whom voted against the bill last week. If the popularity of the President and Democratic brand go south because of the party's inability to pass health care reform (as it did in 1994), these are the Members most likely to be looking for another line of work.

Just as a rising tide raises all boats, so a receding political tide leaves those in the shallowest political water aground.

4). If Democrats are successful at passing their agenda and nationalizing the Mid-terms - which would otherwise be terrific news for the most vulnerable Members - the Members who voted no on the health care bill will look like skunks at the garden party.

When President Obama tours the country to promote the Democratic record to swing voters and to mobilize our base, it will be hard for him to say, "And now that you're convinced and excited, go cast your ballot for the guy who voted against our program."

5). In next year's elections, marginal Democrats desperately need highly-motivated Democratic voters to turn out to the polls. It's hard to inspire the base, if you voted against the program they supported.

In last week's Virginia and New Jersey Governor's races, Republicans were much more likely to vote than Democrats. Many of the voters who came out to support President Obama in 2008 simply didn't bother to vote. If that happens again in 2010, many marginal Democrats are toast.

Among other things, my political consulting firm organizes get-out-the-vote programs. I can tell you firsthand that it is a lot easier to motivate volunteers and voters to support someone who is a fighter for the causes people care about than it is for candidates who are scared of their own shadows. There is a lot you can do to turn out voters with good organization. But to really spur turnout you need to inspire voters. And, to build get-out-the-vote organizations, you need to inspire volunteers and party activists. Neither happens when candidates vote like Republicans.

In almost all of the districts where Democrats voted against the health care bill, it is particularly important to mobilize young people - and in most cases, African Americans. These are the two groups that most intensely support health care reform - and President Obama.

Remember, in 2010 President Obama will not be on the ballot. Voters will have to be inspired to turn out by the local Congressional and Senate candidates.

6). News flash to Democrats who voted against the health bill: not one of the "tea party" gang is going to support you in 2010. Whether you voted yes or no, they are all going to work their hearts out for your opponent. The "tea party" gang you saw at your town meeting in August does not represent swing voters in the district - they are the hardcore base of the Republican Party.

Instead of worrying about them, better to worry about inspiring your own highly-motivated volunteers and activists to compete with them. Voting against health care reform is not the way to do that. The same goes for grassroots donors.

7). Whether or not marginal Democrats voted for the health care bill, they will be held personally responsible for that bill - and the entire Obama program - by the Republicans in the next election.

When I was sixteen years old, it snowed in my old hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana during Mardi Gras week. They shut the schools, so my pal and I took the train to New Orleans to explore the wonders of Mardi Gras.

As I wandered wide-eyed down Bourbon Street one night the hawker at a strip club gave me a real lesson in life. He said, "Come on in sonny, they're going to say you did anyway."

That's exactly what will happen to every Democrat in the Mid-terms. The best way to prepare for that politically, is to stand up proudly and support the Democratic program - not to slink around in a defensive crouch.

It's much better politically to present a clear contrast to the Republicans than to try to be "Republican Lite." In general, if people want to vote for a Republican, they will vote for the real McCoy - not a weak imitation.

8). Voters like fighters. As a political consultant, I have worked in districts all over America -- with a host of other political consultants. I can tell you for certain that political consultants, as a class, are notoriously risk-averse and - unfortunately -- often completely nearsighted. Many of them think that today's controversy will look the same way on Election Day, and they are generally wrong.

Worst yet, they often advise their clients to keep their heads down, and to avoid making waves. Generally I have found this to be horrible advice. On the whole, swing voters - and certainly mobilizable voters - like fighters. They like candidates who have strong beliefs, and stick by their guns. That quality is an independent variable in deciding how persuadable voters cast their ballots.

Not long after the 2004 election, I was in a New Jersey taxicab. The driver was a typical male New Jersey cabbie. "So what do you think of Corzine?" I asked. "Oh, Corzine, tough guy. Like him," he replied about the then-Senator.

"What do you think of Bush?" I asked. "Like him too. Tough guy. Stands up for what he believes," came the answer.

"What about Kerry?" I asked. "Kerry? Can't stand him. Flip-flopper."

"How about Hillary Clinton?" I asked. "Tough gal. I like her," he said.

Ideology, policy positions - none of that mattered to this cabdriver who liked Corzine, Clinton and Bush. He wanted a tough, committed leader. But the Republicans had sold him on their core message - "John Kerry is a flip-flopper."

It's generally very hard to hide or finesse your core beliefs, and because swing voters are often more concerned with whether you have strong beliefs than the content of those beliefs, it's usually a bad idea to try.

9). Even if the economy begins to improve, the electorate in 2010 is likely to be angry. In that kind of environment, the candidate with the most populist message has a huge leg up.

At its heart, the health care issue is a battle between the interests of average Americans, and health insurance companies. It's a contest between everyday working people and insurance CEO's who make $12 million a year (that would be $5,769 per hour). It is a classic battle between the interests of Wall Street investors and Main Street health care consumers.

The polling is clear: it's great politics in any one of these swing district to stand up to health insurance companies. It's a terrible idea to cozy up to Daddy Megabucks, the Health Insurance Tycoon.

10) Finally, one of the most important rules in political life: if, as an office holder, you believe that there are political downsides to either side of a vote in Congress, you are always politically better off defending the decision you believe in.

I've talked to many Members of Congress who told me that they would like to vote for health care reform, but are afraid to take on the political opposition.

All Members of Congress are going to have to defend their health care votes. Instead of bobbing and weaving - instead of voting one way and believing another - politicians are almost always better off defending the side of the argument that they believe in their hearts is right.

It's bad politics not to, because in the end the voters cast their ballots for the character qualities they see in the candidates much more than anything else.

Americans United for Change has put out a wonderful ad that summarizes in 30 seconds the reasons why voting against health care reform is bad politics. You can see it on Youtube.com at: Bad Politics.

And remember, each of the 39 Democrats - and all but one Republican -- who voted against the health care bill have one more chance to redeem themselves. When the bill comes back from the House-Senate Conference there will be one more up or down vote on health care reform. Before then, let's all do everything we can to convince them that in this case, it's good politics to do what is right.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.

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