I’m not going to attempt to dissect each of the arguments made by Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen in their Washington Post op-ed about why Democrats should abandon their push for comprehensive health care reform. But the headline on the piece—“If Democrats ignore health-care polls, midterms will be costly”—is simplistic to the point of being misleading. That’s because it’s possible to construct any number of true statements such that if the Democrats do X or don’t do Y, “the midterms will be costly”—their outlook for this fall is brutal.
Caddell and Schoen do offer a somewhat more nuanced case in the body of the piece, arguing that Democrats will face “a far greater calamitous reaction at the polls” if they pass health care than if they do not, and that claims to the contrary are “self-deluding.” But it’s not clear that this is correct. It’s true, as they say, that the idea that “the public will suddenly embrace health-care reform” if it’s passed is mistaken. But the political case for passing reform is not that “the public” will embrace it, but that Democrats will. Indeed, as the party leadership has recently united behind the effort, there are signs that this is happening.
But arguments about whether reform will help or hurt Democrats in the fall are in the end somewhat beside the point. Political parties exist, in part, to advance the electoral interests of co-partisans. But more importantly, they are machines for achieving policy goals in the political arena. Comprehensive health care reform has been a goal of the Democratic Party for a loooong time. If the party has an opportunity to pass it, it will do so—that’s what parties do. After that, the proof is in the pudding: if it works well and people like it, Democrats will benefit in the long run, both electorally and by virtue of having realized a core goal. If it’s a failure, voters will reject it, the reform initiatives will be scaled back, and the party will be discredited. That’s the political message to keep in mind.