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Enact the Best Policy You Can And Hope (And Fight) For the Best


My epic column on the various terrible arguments about the ACA being a mistake advanced by Democratic public officials is up. (Remarkably, the Harkin comments seem to be getting renewed attention this week by people determined to demonstrate that the “Obama could have gotten Congress to nationalize the health insurance industry but didn’t. even. try! is, sadly, not a strawman.) The brutal truth is that good policy has never been a guarantee of good electoral results:

Again, it’s worth putting things in historical perspective. The problem with waiting for the perfect, risk-free time to pass major reform legislation is that there’s never a perfect time. There have been three major periods of progressive reform legislation in Congress between the Civil War and 2008. (The fact that there have been only three should give pause to those who think that Obama, Reid, and Nancy Pelosi are worthless sellouts because they failed to completely transform the American political economy in Obama’s first two years.) In 1966, Great Society Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate, a preview of the crack-up of the Democratic coalition that would (with a detour created by Watergate) lead to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In 1938, New Deal Democrats lost 72 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, and this tally doesn’t account for the failure of FDR’s efforts to defeat anti-New Deal Democrats in the primaries. In 1874, the Reconstruction-era Republicans lost 93 (out of 293) seats in the House and a net of seven seats in the Senate, effectively ending Reconstruction.

Does this mean that Lyndon Johnson shouldn’t have signed the Civil Rights Act? That FDR should have waited until he didn’t need Southern segregationists to pass New Deal legislation? That Republicans should have nominated Andrew Johnson rather than Ulysses S. Grant in 1868? Of course not.

The perfect response to these kind of arguments was made by Pelosi: “We come here to do a job, not keep a job. There are more than 14 million reasons why that’s wrong.” This is exactly right. The window for progressive reform in the United States is always narrow and treacherous — you get the best you can get when you have the chance. The unpopularity of the greatest progressive achievement passed by Congress in nearly five decades is unfortunate, but misguided Monday-morning quarterbacking isn’t the right response.

There was an additional discussion of recent results that got cut because the piece had already exceeded the usual limits, but to be clear I’m not advancing a completely deterministic or structural theory of electoral outcomes. Choices matter at the margins, and in 2010 in particular the Democrats performed to towards the bad end of the plausible spectrum of results. But there was no politically viable course of action that could have been worth a swing of 50 House seats in 2010 or saved the Senate in 2014. The federal elections that were close enough to be affected by legislative choices since the passage of the ACA, the Democrats won.

There is a dark side to the historical perspective — we don’t know what will happen to the ACA. It might not only endure but be eventually built on and further improved, like most of the central programs of the New Deal. It might at least hang in there, like most of the key programs of the Great Society. Or conservatives in the judiciary, hostile statehouses, and eventually Congress might roll it back as happened with Reconstruction. The fight is far from over. But the solution is not to wait for the perfect circumstances, because they don’t exist.

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