As I suggested yesterday, Brown’s opposition to the current Senate health care bill is a product of “I’ve got mine” sentiment: Massachusetts has its own health care plan, so there’s no need to tamper with it at the federal level. Chait poses a reasonable question when he asks, “So why should the rest of the country feel bound to heed this decision?” The answer many Republicans prefer to give is that the voters have spoken and it has been “proven” that health care legislation is unpopular and politically toxic, but this claim doesn’t actually hold up very well. If Massachusetts voters’ disapproval of federal health care legislation is driven in large part by satisfaction with MassCare, which is what Brown’s win would suggest, this is obviously an argument in favor of passing a health care bill in order to win the kind of popularity that MassCare already has. The very “parochial” defense Brown has mounted drives home that most Massachusetts voters apparently like universal or near-universal health insurance coverage mandated by government, which is not really a “wake-up call” telling Democrats that the public will destroy them if they pass a health care bill. The experience of at least the last forty-five years tells us that the public tends to like specific government programs and never wants to reduce or eliminate them, and it doesn’t make much difference if the programs create huge, unaffordable liabilities.
Whether this federal health care legislation or MassCare is good public policy is a different question. Obviously, I think they aren’t because they are unsustainable and unaffordable, but that isn’t my point here. The core of the Republican argument right now is that most people don’t like the health care bill, Brown’s election shows this, and therefore Democrats should give up. This is pretty close to a pure appeal to the crowd. It is understandable why they would say this, because we all know that the measures instituted by federal health care legislation will rapidly become popular and politically untouchable.
Once the legislation passes, it will probably become the Democrats’ ace in the hole in every domestic policy debate hereafter. Democrats routinely have an edge on almost every domestic issue anyway, and this is likely to increase that edge. Brown can make opposition to federal health care the centerpiece of his campaign because he is operating in a state liberal enough to already have near-universal coverage. That means that the problem the federal bill is attempting to address has become something of an abstraction for Massachusetts voters, and the bill itself appears to threaten the system they already have. This is true in very few other states.
After all, how has Brown been able to rally opposition to the health care bill? By complaining that it would lead to Medicare cuts and interfere with Massachusetts’ system. In other words, he has based his candidacy around defending old entitlements against new ones. This is effective as a short-term tactic, as Brown has shown, but it should also tell the Democrats that establishing a new entitlement will be to their benefit as a matter of winning elections and popularity. In other words, Brown’s win actually proves that voters reward a candidate who voted for (statewide) universal health care and who is willing to defend it, which means that the electoral consequences of passing the federal bill should also be positive for the supporters of the bill.
Once the legislation has passed and the GOP makes repeal their slogan, the party advocating repeal will lose ground and will perform worse at the polls than they otherwise would. I don’t think this is a good or salutary outcome, and I see it as a disaster for the country’s long-term fiscal health, but it is what has happened every time one party has successfully expanded the size and scope of government and the other party proposes to overturn or repeal the programs in question. Republicans will not and perhaps cannot admit this, as they have become so wedded to the falsehood that the public rejected them because of spending, when this had little or nothing to do with their losses in ’06 and ’08.