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Democrats’ dilemmas on reform

Healthcare, however, is more than just a simple issue position for Democrats today, as it was in 1994. Back then, going into the debate, Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) asked me to brief the Democratic Caucus on the House floor. I said, with greater prescience than I had hoped for, that healthcare was not just a matter of public policy preferences, of better vs. best, of good or less good for one’s district. It was, I said then, “a matter of political survival.”

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The failure of healthcare reform that year was not the only cause of the second-greatest Democratic debacle of the 20th century, but putting Democrats’ inability to govern on vivid display, making clear that we could not keep our fundamental promises, revealing our divisions and our impotence was a critical factor in losing 54 House seats and eight Senate seats.

Hence the relevance of Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition to the Continental Congress, “If we do not hang together, most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

Franklin’s observation is not just a colorful witticism. In this instance, it is an empirical fact.

Political climates are one of the most important determinants of electoral outcomes. When the winds blow strongly in one direction or the other, they exert real force.

The single best indicator of that climate is the president’s popularity. The relationship between presidential popularity and midterm outcomes is strong and robust. To cite but two examples — in 1998, when Bill Clinton’s approval soared to the mid-60s, Democrats overcame historical precedent to gain five House seats. Conversely, in 1982, when approval of Ronald Reagan hovered in the mid-40s, his party lost 26 seats.

Defeating this president on his top priority will undoubtedly do real damage to his approval rating and to the image of Democrats more broadly. Whatever misgivings voters may have about a plan with which they are mostly unfamiliar, a recent CBS poll found that by more than two to one, Americans would be disappointed if Congress fails to pass healthcare reform.

Democrats are likely to bear the brunt of that disappointment. Another poll found an eight-point shift against the majority party in the generic vote margin if healthcare does not pass. That is just tenths of a point less than the shift in the margin between Democratic House victories in 1992 and the disaster of 1994.

When tides like those of 1994, 2006 and 2008 wash over the political landscape, those most affected are moderate and liberal Republicans (in ’06 and’08) and moderate and conservative Democrats (in ’94) precisely because they hold the real estate most difficult for their respective parties to defend.

Professors Leonard Williams and Neil Wollman calculated that while 96 percent of liberal House Democrats were reelected in 1994, only 75 percent of their moderate and conservative compatriots secured victories that year. When the tide turned in 2006, 38 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans in the House went down to defeat along with Lincoln Chafee, the Senate’s most liberal Republican.

In reality, individual and collective rationally may diverge here. It may be best for some Democrats to vote against healthcare themselves while watching their colleagues pass the plan — if only that were possible.

In the end, however, important as it is for moderate and conservative Democrats to avoid being ideologically out of sync with their constituents, preventing harshly negative assessments of their party and their president is an even more vital imperative.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.