The Democrats’ Infighting Over Obamacare

Chuck Schumer is second-guessing the Dems’ decision to prioritize the ACA:

In his harshest assessment of the Obama presidency to date, Schumer argued that the White House and congressional Democrats erred by focusing on the Affordable Care Act throughout most of 2009 and early 2010 rather than following the passage of the economic stimulus with other targeted economic legislation that would directly help more people. He said voters had given the party a mandate in 2008 to stop the financial crisis and reverse the economic damage done to the middle class, and while he supported the substance of Obamacare, it was a political loser because it offered its most tangible benefit—access to coverage for the uninsured—to just 5 percent of the voting public.

Beutler disputes Schumer’s version of history:

The health care reform process didn’t begin in earnest until after the Recovery Act had already passed, at which point Congress’ willingness and ability to pass another big deficit-financed stimulus bill had been maxed out. Maybe Schumer has other ideas in mindlabor rights? Housing policy? A different entitlement?but he’s never laid out what the achievable alternative was, and how the middle-class and Democratic Party would’ve been better off as a result.

That’s because there never really was an alternative. Not that Democrats couldn’t have done a better job helping the economy recoverI believe they could havebut that the One Big Thing they cashed their capital in on wasn’t really up to them. Health care reform was basically pre-packaged, and ready to go because that’s where the consensus was. If after such a decisive victory and once-in-a-generation majorities, Obama announced he would go small on health care reform, or put it off for another time (like he did with immigration reform) the backlash would’ve been severe. It would’ve been his first major elective move as president, and it would’ve splintered his coalition very badly.

Weigel argues along the same lines:

There’s an alternative history of the Obama years in which the administration, like some time traveller sent back to fight Skynet, prevented the Tea Party from ever being born. It governed from the populist left; it owned the fight against “Wall Street” and denied the right the ability to side with the proles by opposing TARP. It’s a widely held belief on the left that this really could have been done, with smarter hires and less concern for the financial world that was going to turn against Obama anyway. Obama could have, like FDR, “welcomed their hatred.”

The small problem with this argument is that it’s bonkers. The Republican opposition to the new Obama presidency did not begin with the ACA. It began with the economic stimulus bill, which Democrats had hoped to get as many as 80 Senate votes for, and ended up scraping through with only three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House.

Steve M. disagrees:

But Obama, even after the stimulus fight and the rise of the tea party, had enough juice to get the health care bill passed, because that’s what he’d saved the rest of his political capital for. That was the make-or-break agenda item for him.  And of course he was going to prioritize that rather than a larger stimulus — he was an ambitious president with an eye to the history books. A bigger stimulus wasn’t going to be the accomplishment that made his name as a president — for that he needed a big piece of legislation.

Except that what Obama is going to be known for is failing to help the middle class enough in the wake of the crash. I favor the health care law, but it’s porous — it doesn’t help enough people, and there are many people it doesn’t help at all.  What if stimulus and debt relief had gotten the make-or-break treatment from the White House?

Waldman is unimpressed by such arguments:

[T]o say that Democrats shouldn’t have bothered on the off chance that they could have passed some more stimulus and maybe minimized their losses in 2010 makes one wonder what the point of electing Democrats is.

Schumer would reply, “To help the middle class!” But when he got to the point in his speech where he was ready to offer all his terrific ideas for doing so, he punted, saying, “I’d like to outline not WHAT policies Democrats will propose but rather HOW we should build our party’s platform to appeal directly to the middle-class and convince them that government is on their side.” What followed was some mundane PR advice.

That’s something there’s no shortage of, and, to put it in Schumer’s terms, the voters didn’t hire him to dispense messaging tips. If he really wants to help his party, he ought to get moving on those middle-class proposals he keeps talking about. When do we get to see them?