The Schumer Consensus

Sen. Chuck Schumer

You can barely click on a link these days without reading someone arguing that Obama’s decision to pursue healthcare reform in 2009 – 2010 was the fatal flaw of his administration. As Chuck Schumer put it, putting healthcare before economic recovery sent the wrong message to working-class whites, who have been fleeing the party in droves ever since. Today, Charlie Cook offers up the same message about white flight:

An argument can be made that it is because Democrats have subordinated their traditional focus on helping lower- and working-class Americans move up the economic ladder in favor of other noble priorities, such as health care, the environment, and civil rights.

I’ve heard this a million times now and I simply don’t understand it. In terms of chronology, Obama did put the economy first. With TARP and the stimulus and the auto-bailout, the key measures to shore up a flat-lining economy were taken in short order. You could plausibly argue, I think, that in retrospect, Obama should have gone bigger, and produced a much more ambitious stimulus. But, as someone who observed this close-up and in real time, the odds of that actually happening were close to zero. And if it had happened, the stimulus would have been even less popular – and more easily demagogued – than it actually was. The problem was not the timing or the seriousness of the response; it was the seriousness of the problem. When an economy has a near-death experience, on top of huge public and private debt, the recovery will tend to be exactly what this recovery was: long, sad at first, and later … well, we don’t know yet, do we?

More to the point, healthcare was itself a response to the wounded economy. Here’s why. It’s very hard to see how the white working classes can ever see the kind of income gains they enjoyed for much of the mid-twentieth century in the new global economy. Tax redistribution can only do so much to counteract the enormous forces depressing those wages. But one way in which the working poor can tangibly be helped is by providing access to health insurance, something everyone needs, and something that costs a huge amount for a struggling blue-collar worker. You could argue – and I would – that universal health insurance in America – is actually the most effective measure available to counteract soaring social and economic inequality. Far from being a distraction from the core Democratic task of helping the working family, it’s one of the most effective policies for that goal that’s available.

I suspect that what is really going on is a matter of perception – which, of course, does matter in politics.

The healthcare debate in 2009 and 2010 was more spirited and fierce than the debates over many other issues. The GOP decided to make it their first boogeyman of the Obama years, and organized the 2010 mid-terms around it. And politically, especially against a typically feeble Democratic messaging campaign, that made cynical sense. Even though Obama had put the economy first, the GOP could alter the debate to make it seem as if he had put healthcare before jobs. And since his healthcare proposal was successfully distorted by the right as a redistribution scheme from the white elderly to poor blacks and browns, you can see why this might lead to white flight.

My point is not that this didn’t happen in the public consciousness. My point is simply that this wasn’t because of Obama’s skewed priorities. And to blame Obama for the distortions and demagoguery of the ACA on the right is to cement the cynics’ victory twice over. But that’s what Democrats of Schumer’s era always tend to do. It’s the kind of defensive crouch that the Clintons perfected over the years. What Obama deserves criticism for is not the substance, but the inability to sell and explain and communicate the core principles and purposes of the ACA. He was so busy trying to get something through the Congress he took his eye off the ball in public opinion. And since there appears to be almost no one in Democratic ranks who can make the case except Obama, it turned into a political failure.

But that, again, is not a foregone conclusion. We are still in the very early stages of the ACA’s existence, the period when opposition is likely to be strongest, when glitches remain, when the benefits have yet to be fully or widely felt. Sure, the polling has been relentlessly negative since the ACA was passed – but that is not unusual for new and large government programs. If the economy continues to improve in the next two years, moreover, the impact might begin to reach those white working classes who increasingly view the Democrats as alien. And if the ACA brings tangible benefits to the struggling poor who are its primary beneficiaries,and as the minimum wage debate continues, the politics of class might shift again. When the debate is about removing health insurance from large numbers of the working poor – as the Republicans propose – the self-interest of the white working class might begin to work in the Democrats’ favor.

Well, we’ll see, won’t we?

(Photo: Senator Chuck Schumer waits to speak at the National Press Club on Tuesday, November 25, 2014, on what went wrong for Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections and what they must do to succeed in 2016. By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)