ObamaCare in A Paralell Universe

The New Republic‘s Jonathan Cohn has a counterfactual article out based on a premise that there’s an alternate universe in which President Obama abandoned his health care push and Democrats were facing historic defeat anyway.

From an ideological liberal perspective, there’s plenty of ways you could argue that given the ephemeral nature of political power and the importance of moving toward a society with universal health insurance, Democrats were right to pass something when they had the chance, whatever the political costs. .

Yet from a political perspective, it’s hard to argue that the health care law has been anything but a disaster for Democrats. While we’ll have a better sense of things once we can look at actual results to see if those Democrats who voted “no” on ObamaCare fared better than their counterparts who went with the Democratic leadership, what we do know is that in the seven months since passage, the law remains unpopular and Democrats are running away from it rather than on it. In addition, there’s the opportunity costs. Obama has been going around in interviews saying that the White House was too focused on getting policy right to focus on politics and communications. Well, had he not spent over a year on passing a health care bill, he could have had more opportunites to communicate.

But heck, I don’t blame Cohn for thinking it was still worth it. If the Bush era Republicans had created Social Security personal accounts and real entitlement reform, I would have thought it was worth the price of the majority

Obama In 2010 and Clinton in 1994

In my column on the main site, I talked about why I think President Obama is likely to react differently to electoral defeat in the midterms than Bill Clinton did. I argued that unlike Clinton, who was always a politician first and foremost, Obama is an ideological liberal who will continue to press his agenda.

I’m seeing now that the National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein has a piece up comparing his conversation with Clinton days before the 1994 election and his recent interview with Obama. He also comes away with the sense that Obama is taking the prospect of political defeat a lot differently than Clinton, though he has a bit of a different take. To Brownstein, the difference is more a matter of temperment. It was Clinton’s despondence about losing that prompted him to change course in his presidency, Brownstein reports, while it’s Obama’s trademark calmness that prevents him from doing the same.

He writes:

Where Clinton agonized, Obama analyzed. It was clear that Obama has started to think seriously about how he will navigate a Washington with many more Republicans in it. But nothing about him suggested that he viewed the impending arrival of those Republicans as evidence that he needed to radically rethink his presidency. Obama sounded neither shell-shocked nor defiant. He seemed entirely focused on the practical: where he might work with Republicans, and where he expects confrontation (education, infrastructure, and energy in the first group; taxes, health care, and Social Security in the second).

Everything about the conversation re _inforced the signal of continuity the president sent this fall when he named confidants Pete Rouse as chief of staff and Tom Donilon as his national security adviser. In private, Obama appears just as unruffled, one White House aide said. Asked whether the president had displayed “angst” over the looming losses, the aide said, “I don’t think that is the right word. He’s come to all these challenges with the same steadiness that people saw on the campaign trail in 2008–never got too hot, never got too cold, but just faced each day and did his best to take it on.”

Obama’s equanimity was indeed a great strength for him in 2008. But if Democrats are routed next week, some of them may wonder whether it is possible to be too cool and collected in the face of calamity.

Another Quarter of Tepid Growth

The only thing that could have possibly mitigated looming disaster for Democrats on Tuesday would have been the release of an unexpectedly strong third quarter GDP number, yet news out this morning is that the economy grew at a meager 2 percent clip.

While growth is obviously better than contraction, it should be higher during an economic recovery, and more is needed to make a dent in unemployment.

Angle’s Momentum

Whether it was their debate or Harry Reid’s boast that he saved the world from a depression, Sharron Angle seems to have regained the momentum in the Nevada Senate race.

Angle has lead (albiet by a small margin) in all of the public polls taken over the past two and a half weeks, and now is ahead by four points according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

Reid has had trouble breaking the 45 percent barrier in recent surveys, and the Las Vegas Review Journal/Mason Dixon poll shows Angle trouncing Reid among independent voters, by a 55 percent to 38 percent margin. 

Obama’s Plight

Whether you prefer to believe expert predictions that it will be a “maelstrom,” a “bloodbath,” or merely a “blowout,” Republicans are poised to make substantial gains in Congress next Tuesday and deliver a severe blow to the Obama presidency in the process.

Just two years after sweeping into power on a platform of hope and change, Obama finds himself and his agenda a political liability to Democratic candidates throughout the nation. Though he took office with a 67 percent Gallup approval rating in January 2009, it stood at 44 percent in the most recent survey and has dipped as low as 41 percent. And though he built his candidacy by positioning himself as the anti-Bush, by a 48 percent to 43 percent margin, Americans now think that George Bush was the better president, according to a new survey by Democratic pollster Doug Schoen. The same poll found that 56 percent of the nation wants Obama fired in 2012.

It’s true that as sharp as Obama’s decline has been, the speed of his reversal of political fortunes should serve as a warning to Republicans who are feeling emboldened right now. Just as Obama’s meteoric rise has been followed by a precipitous fall, he could conceivably make a triumphant comeback two years from now.

That said, the two most recent examples of presidential comebacks following defeats in the midterm elections are Bill Clinton after Republicans took back Congress in 1994 and Ronald Reagan after Democrats gained 26 seats to build on their majority in 1982. But there are a number of reasons why Obama’s situation is different.

Clinton was able to mount a political comeback by abandoning his ambitious liberal goals such as health care legislation, bringing up small symbolic issues as in school uniforms and successfully portraying House Republicans as extremists.

Yet while Clinton was willing to sacrifice his agenda for his short-term political benefit, Obama is an ideological liberal who is committed to imposing his policy vision on America regardless of its popularity. Unlike Clinton, Obama successfully passed his unpopular national health care plan, which will continue to disrupt the lives of individuals and businesses over the next two years.

In addition, Republicans have learned a lot of lessons from the experience of 1994, and it’s unlikely that Rep. John Boehner, if he should become House Speaker, will make himself as easy a foil for Obama as Newt Gingrich was for Clinton.

As with Clinton, there are clear parallels between Obama’s situation now, and the political difficulty Reagan found himself in 1982. After running on a promise to restore the nation’s economy, the country was mired in a deep recession with high unemployment despite passing his landmark tax cuts. Reagan’s Gallup approval rating stood at 42 percent in October 1982 (and would reach as low as 35 percent that following January). In 1983, however, the economy improved, and it was booming by 1984 — fueling Reagan’s landslide victory over Walter Mondale.

As with Reagan, Obama’s political fortunes will largely hinge on whether or not Americans feel the economy has recovered by the time of the next election. In Reagan’s case, he took office with an inflation rate of nearly 12 percent. The Federal Reserve Board’s tight monetary policy choked off economic growth early on, but by the end of 1982, the worst was over, inflation was down to under 4 percent, and Reagan’s tax cuts had a chance to work.

Obviously, it’s difficult to predict where the economy will be two years from now. But unlike Reagan, in Obama’s case, the Federal Reserve Board is largely out of ammo in terms of boosting the economy by lowering interest rates further, and instead is expected to try inflating the economy by printing money and purchasing bonds. Meanwhile, the White House has reported that as of September, 70 percent of the economic stimulus package had been spent. With the renewed attention to federal deficits, it’s doubtful that Obama will be able to sign another large economic package.

In addition, the Obama administration has added a raft of new regulations to businesses, including those in the national health care law. The regulatory environment could even worsen further if Republicans take back Congress, because then the administration will become more dependent on federal agencies to impose aspects of Obama’s agenda that he can no longer hope to pass legislatively. It also remains an open question as to whether Obama will be able to get his proposed tax increase by allowing the Bush era rates to expire at the end of the year.

While Obama may have difficulty digging himself out of his political hole on his own, there’s always the chance that he can get help from Republicans. Even if Obama is vulnerable in 2012, the GOP will have to find a strong nominee to challenge him, and right now, the prospective Republican field is uninspiring. There’s also the distinct possibility that Republicans will show themselves to be weak at governing, disappointing their base as well as independents who gave them a chance to prove themselves.

Wisconsin Dem Ron Kind Has Odd Definition of “Poor” and “Wealthy”

Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Ron Kind, lamenting the prospect of Russ Feingold losing his Senate seat, told Dave Weigel, “Call me foolish…But I think it’s important that we still have one poor person serving in the Senate. If Johnson buys this election, he’d be the 72nd multimillionaire in the Senate.”

Kind has an odd definition of “poor.” As a Senator, Russ Feingold earns $174,000 a year — which easily puts him in the top 5 percent of income earners according to IRS data.

But what makes Kind’s remark odder still is his definition of “wealthy.”

At a recent debate, Kind defended his suport for raising taxes:

Kind said he would like the keep the (Bush) tax cuts in place for the first $250,000 of income.

“But for those who are calling for the permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent â€_ I tell them find a way to pay for it. Don’t borrow the money from China to do it and increase the debt burden for our children and grandchildren,” he said.

So, under Kind’s set of definitions, Feingold — as an individual earning $174,000 — is a “poor person.” Yet a household earning $250,000 is wealthy.

Toomey on Top

After months of holding a lead over Rep. Joe Sestak in the Pennsylvania Senate race, Pat Toomey looked like he was starting to lose ground. A few weeks ago, several polls showed the race tightening — two of them even gave Sestak his first lead since May. But in the last week, Toomey has taken back the lead. A new Morning Call tracking poll taken during the three day period ending yesterday shows him up 8 points, and he’s up 4.6 points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

Michael Steele, The Inspector Clouseau of American Politics

For those unfamiliar with the Pink Panther series, Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau character is a bumbling French detective who wreaks havoc while incompetently investigating crimes, and yet he succeeds because he somehow manages to be there when the crimes get solved. It’s hard not to be reminded of Clouseau when reading news that RNC chairman Michael Steele is running for another two year term.

Steele has been about as pitiful a chairman as could be imagined. He’s spent money recklessly and has had difficulty fundraising in the best environment for the GOP in a long time. While communication was supposed to be his strong suit, he’s been a constant distraction with a stream of embarassing gaffes. Yet in the end, in spite of his numerous bungles and for reasons having nothing to do with him, Republicans are poised for a massive nationwide landslide next week. You can bet that as he seeks re-election he’ll be happy to tout his tremendous success in turning the party around. And as a result, he’s likely to survive. No doubt, this will drive some Inspector Dreyfus out there to insanity.

Bonus: This is one of the best Inspector Clouseau scenes:

Dems Running Against ObamaCare Helps Repeal Efforts

When they were trying to convince House Democrats to take a suicide vote, the Obama administration argued that the national health care law would become more popular once passed. As recently as last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that passage of the law would be an advantage to her party in the election.

Yet the New York Times today surveys the national campaign landscape, and finds Democrats still playing defensive on the new law. With few exceptions, candidates are either trying not to mention the law or are touting their opposition to it. In the West Virginia Senate race, one-time ObamaCare supporter Gov. Joe Manchin has reversed his prior support for the law and now calls for partially repealing it.

From the start, the project of repealing ObamaCare was going to be an uphill struggle just because it’s very difficult to undo acts of Congress. Even if Republicans were to take over both chambers and pass a repeal bill, Obama would veto it. Even if Republicans add the presidency in 2012, they’d have to find a way to get 60 votes in the Senate to fully repeal the law. 

Though the public wasn’t exactly rallying to support the law when Democrats were confidently defending it, by running away from it, Democrats virtually ensure that it will remain unpopular because the public will continue to be exposed more to the criticisms of the legislation than arguments in favor of it. As always, the possibility of GOP lawmakers becoming weak-kneed is the biggest obstacle to getting anything accomplished. But as long as ObamaCare remains unpopular and opposition is politically advantageous, it makes it more likely that Republicans will have the backbone to see through the repeal process. 

On top of repeal, the continued unpopularity of the health care law could bolster legal challenges to the law’s constitutionality. This was a point that Geoergetown Law Professor Randy Barnett emphasized to me when I spoke to him for a magazine piece.

“As public opposition to the mandate builds, this gives judges the fortitude they normally lack to enforce the Constitution against the will of Congress, which they deem to be the popular will,” he said. “If it’s not the popular will, they’re a lot more willing to strike down laws that they otherwise would uphold.”

The Coming GOP Rout

Whether you want to call it a “blowout” a “bloodbath” or a “maelstrom,” all the smart money is on a Republican landslide next Tuesday.

Late yesterday, the Hill released polling data taken by former Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn, predicting that Democrats would lose 50 or more seats in a “blowout” election. According to the writeup:

The Hill 2010 Midterm Election poll, surveying nearly 17,000 likely voters in 42 toss-up districts over four weeks, points to a massive Republican wave that, barring an extraordinary turnaround, will deliver crushing nationwide defeats for President Obama’s party.

The data suggest a GOP pickup that could easily top 50 seats (the party needs 39 for control of the House).

The Cook Political Report is now projecting Democratic losses of 48 to 60 seats, “with higher losses possible.” According to Cook, “The midterm maelstrom pulling House Democrats under shows no signs of abating, if anything it has intensified.”

Handicapper Stu Rothenberg goes a step further:

With a week to go until Election Day, House Democrats face the potential of a political bloodbath the size of which we haven’t seen since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The largest midterm House loss for the president’s party during the last 50 years was 52 seats in 1994. The previous largest losses were 55 seats in 1942 and 71 seats in 1938.