[Posted by Karl]
TNR’s Jonathan Chait gets it about half-right today:
Paul Krugman’s column today has some good analysis of the House Blue Dogs, who have been raising a ruckus over health care reform. I disagree, though, with Krugman’s premise: “Right now the fate of health care reform seems to rest in the hands of relatively conservative Democrat.” I think the ultimate bottleneck remains the Senate, where Democrats need 100% of their members, many from conservative states, to stop a filibuster. In the House, Democrats only need 50% plus one, which doesn’t take you very deep into red America.
Actually, as Nate Silver has pointed out, there is a larger moderate bloc in the House; for example, there are 39 House Democrats more conservative than the second-most conservative Senate Democrat. Of course, Silver also notes the importance of the center in the Senate, where each is proportionately more of the overall vote. And so far, despite multi-million dollar attacks from the Left, red-state Democratic senators like Kent Conrad and Mary Landrieu have not caved yet (Obama Administration officials recently got a frosty reception on the topic down on the bayou). Even so, the argument for the Senate being key rests more in that chamber’s rules — the filibuster and the Byrd rule — than in its ideological makeup. But the argument for the Senate goes a bit further than that. As Chait himself noted last week:
The Democrats want the House to pass a liberal bill, so that whatever gets passed out of the Senate can get nudged to the left. But the Blue Dogs don’t want to have to vote for a more liberal bill than what gets signed into law. So there’s a conflict between their interests and the party’s interest.
Ezra Klein may not fully understand what a prisoner’s dilemma really is, but he has otherwise stumbled into the current dynamic:
Some sources are speculating that the Blue Dogs are getting cold feet as they watch Max Baucus dither. Many of them felt burned by the hard and damaging vote on the cap-and-trade bill, as it looks like nothing will come of it in the Senate. Committing themselves to a health-care bill before the Senate shows its hand carries similar risks, and they’re no longer in a risk-taking mood. The worst outcome for conservative Democrats in the House is that they’re on record voting for a health-care reform bill that dies in the Senate and is judged a catastrophic example of liberal overreach.
The problem, of course, is that the more dissension there is among Democrats in the House, the less pressure there’ll be on the Senate Democrats to make a hard vote on health-care reform. This makes health-care reform something of a prisoner’s dilemma for conservative Democrats. If Blue Dogs in the House and centrists in the Senate both put it on the line to pass the bill, they’re both better off. But if one puts it on the line and the other whiffs, then the other pays the price.
Neither Klein nor Chait notices the irony of this situation. The Obama administration’s general approach to the healthcare issue has been to look at what the Clintons did in 1993-94 and do the opposite. But Hillarycare failed after House Democrats already had voted on an unpopular economic package, including a BTU tax which died in the Senate. This year, Democrats rammed through an unpopular, partisan “stimulus” package, and House Democrats again were forced to back an equally unpopular energy tax (the so-called “cap-and-trade” bill for carbon emissions) that is again dying in the Senate.
Of course, history never repeats itself exactly. Ben Domenech suggests that this time, Obama’s plan has more support from industry and less coherent opposition from the populist right. The former is likely true, due to changes in the industry in the last 16-year cycle. The latter may be temporarily true, as the point of Obama’s strategy was to not release a draft bill as a target. Now Congress is at work, and approval of the effort is sliding daily.