Strong opinions, weakly held

Close votes are a feature, not a bug

I’ve seen a somewhat common piece of bad analysis I’ve seen over the past week, and have been surprised to see people correct it. As you may know, the House of Representatives passed a health care reform bill last night, 220 to 215. 39 Democrats voted against it. The fact that the Democrats couldn’t get everyone on board is being treated as a flaw in their strategy when in fact I’m sure their leadership sees it as the key. The bill passed in the House will be merged with whatever bill is passed in the Senate, and that’s the bill both the House and Senate will vote on again to be sent to the President for signature.

Every vote over the minimum necessary to secure passage represents compromises that the Democrats as a group would prefer not to make. It’s not that Nancy Pelosi was lucky to pass the bill, it’s that the Democrats wrote the strongest bill they could that would get enough votes to pass. That’s good strategy.


  1. is it good //strategy// or is it good //tactics//? i would be more inclined to call it the later than the former. the closer the vote, the more people are likely to be unhappy with the majority party (assuming that this is a bellwether issue and the votes cast appropriately represent the sentiment of the country as a whole). this does not help their chances of maintaining such a wide majority during the next mid-term (or even next presidential) election.

    however, a close vote does get the bill through the current session, which could be a tactical win if it leads to a more stable assembly.

    maybe i’m talking semantics here, but i don’t see this being good strategy unless the end goal is to shrink your own majority.

  2. To say that a close vote is a sign of compromising “just enough” to get the bill passed is to miss the point of politics in favor of the point of gamesmanship.

    Note that immediately after this vote, they held another: to offer their support for those injured and killed at Fort Hood. It passed unanimously. Perhaps the leadership could have stripped out approval of gun-carrying soldiers and strategically passed that offer of support with “just enough” compromise.

    A large number of Americans do not approve of the plans proposed by the progressives (read dictatorial statists). They understand that government is subconsciously devoted to its own survival and growth, regardless of its competencies.

    Passing the Death Czar bill by a small margin merely assures its collapse in the Senate. Pelosi won a battle, but lost the war.

    I look forward to going to prison for not paying for whatever monstrosity the progs pass. Somehow I don’t think you guys can build enough prisons. Try killing us all instead. It worked for Mao, Stalin, and was the preferred social engine of Marx.

  3. Depends on what you want to achieve.

  4. It’s good for the people they represent too, passing something that the largest number possible disagree with.

  5. There is another posilbility: Nancy Pelosi has 20 more votes in reserve. She could afford to let those conservative Democrats vote no if their votes were not necessary in order to pass the bill. Why make it harder for them to get re-elected next year if their “No” votes will not kill the bill?

  6. paul in kirkland

    November 9, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    How do you know that they passed the strongest bill possible to pass if they let N Democrats vote against it once they have enough votes?

    Seems like an easy out to me: let a bunch of Reps vote against it, then say “See? This is the best we could get, because this one only got 220 votes.”

  7. It’s good strategy if your goal is power for the Party. If your goal is providing quality health care for the people, not so much.

  8. Well, whether you agree with the bill or not is another question. A lot of people (myself included) don’t believe that the bill in the House will do enough to reduce the growth in health care costs over time, and the concessions that “moderates” want are actually reducing the effectiveness of the legislation.

    And of course it could be the case that she could have gotten more votes had she needed them, but chances are the people she released from voting didn’t get concessions they might otherwise have wanted.

    As far as the strategy vs tactics argument goes, this is a procedural vote. This bill will be merged with the Senate bill and then that bill will be voted on at a later date. So the margin of passage here really doesn’t matter, and to be honest, I don’t think the final vote margin will matter either. If the bill is effective and people like it, every Democrat will try to take credit, and if it’s ineffective, then the Democrats will take the blame, and they’ll suffer at the ballot box. I think that’s reasonable and fair. But saying you didn’t vote for the House version of the bill in November, 2009 is not going to save any Democrat’s job if people don’t like the results.

  9. May I just say that while I congratulate the citizens of the US on approaching this milestone, that as a Canadian citizen, I sincerely hope that the conservatives get their way and once again stop real health care reform in the US.

    As a large country with a small population, bordering on the largest economic power in the world, we need all the advantages we can get, and for the forty years that we’ve had single payer health care, it’s been our biggest trade advantage.

    As an example: I’m 52 years old, with a house that I owe 300k on, with good job prospects, and two kids approaching university, both smart enough that it’s a certainty that there’ll be many many dollars to spend on the next ten years. And so what am I doing? Building an internet startup. If I had to deal with what Americans deal with, I wouldn’t dream of it. But two or three years to try is no big deal, because even with high blood pressure and a few other things that are wearing out, I have no fear or concern that a medical emergency will put my home, my kids, or my wife at risk; and whatever god forbid could happen to them would also not affect us in that way.

    Canadians are more often entrepreneurs than Americans: it’s a fact. That wouldn’t be true if we were on even footing, which basically means if the Americans joined the rest of the world. Thanks for not doing so.

    By the way: if you do your research you’ll learn that most often historically, national health schemes are conservative initiatives. They’ve been brought in to quell dissatisfaction among working people by the wealthy, with the result that they discourage unionization.

    Which reminds me: thanks so much to your conservatives for working so hard to destroy unions, and ensure that the american workforce is worse educated, less capable of change, and poorer, all of which encourages companies to send their plum jobs to places like, well, Canada….

  10. First and foremost, this is exactly Karl Rove’s tactic, employed throughout Bush’s term with the explicit goal of passing the most conservative legislation possible. That is not what the Democrats have done. They missed the most important step – making total victory your goal. Think back to Bush’s tax cuts – he repeatedly vowed not to accept any capital gains tax, at all. We ended up with a capital gains tax that is about half of what the income tax is. The Democrats gave up total victory – Medicare-for-all – and started from a compromise(d) position. This is a terrible example of legislative bargaining.

  11. The fact that the Democrats couldn’t get everyone on board is being treated as a flaw in their strategy when in fact I’m sure their leadership sees it as the key

    I don’t know who’s making the observation you refer to, presumably the DC beltway press, but the actual problem is not that it was close, but that a much better bill was possible in the House. Repeat: we could have gotten a much better bill, with an identical vote total. The holdouts against the bill weren’t holding out because of principle or reelection concerns. Public opinion polls show that voters overwhelmingly support single payer (when they know what it is), for chrissake. These politicians held out because they were paid by insurance companies to obstruct the bill (look at the donation records for those voting against and also for those holding out for the more odious provisions).

    It’s such a huge compromise of a compromise of a compromise of progressive principles it only applies to people who can’t otherwise get coverage — under this legislation, you and I are too rich to opt in to the government plan, which means it will inevitably meet the same fate as the “Great Society” social programs: maligned as “entitlements,” neglected and corrupt until the right wing “reforms” arrive in 30 years and gut whatever effectiveness of the program ever did have. By forcing insurance plans (even private ones) to avoid covering abortion, it drastically regresses access to abortion in the US. There’s a fine story by Harlan Ellison on the subject, “Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine.” That’s what we go back to.

    Progressives strongly believe we could have gotten a much better bill through the House had (a) Obama demonstrated stronger leadership or (b) the progressives in Congress had their shit together. The key to getting what you want is to start with more than you think you can get away with, not to immediately jump to what you think will pass. This is the art of negotiation and it absofrigginlutely applies here. They should have started with a single-payer bill and compromised with a strong public option. Instead, they started with a weak public option and had to blow their wad by sacrificing all those pro-choice votes in 2010.

    Here’s the thing: Democrats are going to lose big in 2010 if this bill doesn’t show immediate benefits for everyone, and those obstructing made it more difficult to do so, and Obama didn’t lift a fat-cat finger to help make it a better bill. He’ll abandon his principles on domestic spying, gay rights, and illegal torture, but not on separation of powers. He never had any stated principles on executive compensation or “too big to fail” banks being propped up by taxpayer gelt. Awesome. If you want the US to be ruled by crazed Christianist zealots that will make you pine for Dubya, by all means, celebrate the art of the compromise with this flawed-but-oh-so-practical bill.

    I’m a bit disgusted by the insularity and naivete of Obama’s team. You need insider hacks to navigate DC (ask Bill Clinton), but you don’t ever listen to them on policy if you really want to make changes rather than preserve the status quo, especially in a time where the status quo is deteriorating rapidly.

  12. Let me highlight this key passage from my lengthy diatribe (sorry about that) above:

    The key to getting what you want is to start with more than you think you can get away with, not to immediately jump to what you think can pass.

    Pelosi and the rest are amateurs.

  13. I dunno. I don’t care about good strategy or what’s for dinner. The damn thing stinks to high heaven, and they ought to throw it out and start all over. Seriously.

  14. I think the conventional wisdom among many on the left that health care reform was completely bungled is just silly. I’m not particularly satisfied with the bill, but the idea that Democrats could have come out with some kind of bill that would implement a full single payer system and then negotiated to something far to the left of where we are now is not supported by any evidence that I have seen. The Obama administration has barely made any progress with only the insurance industry against it, had they tried to push for a single payer system (which would of course lead to much lower payments to doctors, hospitals, and so on), then they would have lost the doctors and other groups as well. A united front against the health care reform from everyone in the health care industry would have completely scuttled the bill immediately.

    I don’t think it’s any surprise that one of the casualties of this process has been the requirement that the public option pay Medicare’s reimbursement rates rather than negotiating its own rates separately.

  15. Dianne J. Vidugiris

    November 10, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    The time for concessions and bipartisanship is long gone. The votes that need to be shored up and mined are within the moderate wing of the Democratic Party itself. We need to show a strong and united front and pass what our country sorely needs a fair and complete health care reform bill.

    The latest concession was horrific and disruptive and destructive of the women’s right to choose and women’s reproductive health. The Stupak-Pitts Amendment is a travesty and needs to be stripped out of the final bill and the bill introduced to the Senate.

    The other concession that has me VERY TROUBLED is the provision to pay for health insurance for illegal aliens. This is just wrong on all levels. You are stripping women’s health insurance and giving lawbreakers health insurance. What is not understood about the prefix il (not legal). We owe NOTHING TO PEOPLE WHO DO NOT HONOR ANY AND ALL OF OUR LAWS.

  16. There is no provision to pay for health insurance for illegal aliens. I prefer to call them undocumented immigrants anyway.

  17. Regardless of which side of the political aisle you are on…

    …does anyone feel that this bill will actually solve any problems? That in 2012, 2016 and beyond health care “reform” won’t once again be a huge issue?

  18. Well, nothing goes into effect really until 2013, so it won’t fix anything before then. It’ll insure probably 30 to 35 million people who don’t have insurance now, so if you consider that a problem, it will present a solution. I don’t think it will do a whole lot to reduce the growth in health care costs, unfortunately. But I do think it’ll put is on the path to controlling costs, though, by creating more incentives to control costs.

    I think that in the end, the problem that is causing the rise in health care costs is “fee for service” and this bill doesn’t even try to take that on.

  19. This is a curious formulation:

    Every vote over the minimum necessary to secure passage represents compromises that the Democrats as a group would prefer not to make… the Democrats wrote the strongest bill they could that would get enough votes to pass.

    Sounds like you’re writing from a more-or-less progressive perspective. If so, however, you may be giving the House Democrats more credit than they’re due. The bill might just as well or better be characterized as “the weakest bill that would get enough votes to pass” — at least in terms of Democratic votes.

    The bill is a de facto abortion ban for many women and a massive, oppressive subsidy to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Pelosi couldn’t let the bill get any worse and still keep the progressives she got, so she left in some basic, incremental regulatory language, like the ban on “pre-existing” condition denials. Far from the best the Dems could get, it’s the worst that the Dems could push through. Your overall point is still valid, of course.

  20. @Diane There is no provision to explicitly pay for illegal immigrants. The provision releases hospitals from the responsibility of serving as Immigration Officers.

    And anyway, we all pay for them now anyway when they show up in the Emergency Room. Until we allow people who can’t pay to DIE then we’ll pay for them one way or another.

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