Buried in Wednesday's New York Times is a line that that has become something of an article of faith among the Obama supporters, health-reform activists and Democrats in general:
Politically, there is an imperative for Democrats to act; they remember well the disastrous political fate that befell them in 1994, when they lost control of the House and Senate after failing to pass a health bill under President Bill Clinton. Rahm Emanuel, the bare-knuckled political operative and former Clinton aide who is now the White House chief of staff, has wasted little time in reminding his fellow Democrats that, as he said in an interview Tuesday, “the inability to act here will have political consequences.”
Under this theory, if only the Democrats had managed to get a vote on HillaryCare, they would have managed to hold onto Congress. The corollary is -- passing health care now will ensure that Democrats hold onto Congress this time around. Problem is, the health care failure was only one part of a perfect storm that ended the Democrats' 40-year rule of the House (and 34 of 40 years in the Senate).
Yes, it's true that Democrats were punished for trying to push through an overly complicated health plan, with little input from Congress (can't be accused of that, this time around) -- in secret and run by an unaccountable part of the government bureaucracy (namely, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton). That certainly rankled many people -- including voters.
But, other factors included:
1) Rampant congressional corruption. In addition to the House banking scandal of a couple years before, a senior Democrat, House Ways & Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski was indicted on using public funds for private use. Well, Democrats must think, "Fortunately, there's no way that could happen again, right?" Oh, wait. This year, the House Ways and Means Chairman -- Charlie Rangel -- is facing multiple ethics charges and media scrutiny over financial disclosure and other problematic behavior? In an interesting coincidence, the US attorney who indicted Rostenkowski in '94? That would be the US Attorney General Eric Holder.
2) Chaos on the House floor. The August, 1994 "rule" vote on an all-important crime bill -- usually an easy party-line vote -- failed as the Congressional Black Caucus voted with Republicans to force the legislation back to committee. That vote began sending signals to the media and congressional observers that the Democrats were losing control of their chamber. While it's unlikely that such circumstances might reoccur, it's not out of the question. Among Democratic factions, there is serious tension between the Blue Dog moderate/conservatives and the more left-wing/progressives. Both sides have tossed rhetoric at the other about what the inclusion or exclusion of a "public option" might mean for the vote on a health bill. If a bill died on a procedural motion, that could bode serious trouble for Democrats next year.
3) A polarizing president. Bill Clinton won the White House with only 43 percent of the vote. During the campaign, he became a walking symbol of the excesses of the 1960s with admissions to smoking pot, adultery and evasive answers on the draft. He followed that up with an attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military. He remained deeply unpopular in certain parts of the country. Republican challengers nationwide ran ads morphing their Democratic incumbent into Bill Clinton (Ted Kennedy in some places). Besides the positive Contract With America, the GOP ran a campaign explicitly channeling voter anger at the cultural lightning rod in the White House.
Barack Obama isn't quite Bill Clinton. He won the presidency with 53 percent of the vote -- the highest popular vote for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson's '64 landslide. Even so, incidents like the Skip Gates arrest and subsequent controversy, the tempestuous town halls -- and even the reaction on the school speech -- show that Obama has become a culturally controversial figure. His popularity has dropped to right around 50 (his disapproval rating on health care is at 52). Will the morphing ads return in 2010? Time will tell.
Obama's Wednesday night speech might get the health care debate back going in a positive direction. But, the key thing to remember is that, like '94, there's a lot going on. The success and failure of the two parties in '10 will undoubtedly rise and fall on more than just health care -- just like in '94.