If Congress Fails to Pass the Obama Health Care Plan

In the current health care debate, Democratic Members of Congress representing swing districts have often (though not always) been among the most cautious when it comes to supporting President Obama's proposals for health care reform.

In many ways that is understandable. They often come from districts that are more conservative than those of their colleagues. They have the least margin for error if they cast a vote that causes swing voters to shift their electoral allegiance. They are the targets of ad campaigns from groups trying to influence their votes. They hear the most from conservative advocacy organizations and interest groups.

But in fact, history shows that these swing district Democrats have the most to lose if Congress fails to pass President Obama's sweeping health care proposal -- and for that matter the other major components of his economic agenda.

The reason is simple: Obama's success in passing his agenda will have an enormous impact on his approval rating with the American people - and the approval rating of Congressional Democrats as well. When Swing District Democrats face the voters next year, those two factors will have a massive effect on whether they return to Congress.

History demonstrates that just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the boats left grounded when the tide goes out are the ones in the shallowest electoral water.

In elections, people do indeed vote for the personal qualities of the candidate. But every election campaign begins where people are -- with a particular mix of predispositions toward one party or another that is impacted by how they think the respective parties are doing standing up for the things they care about.

In America today, Barack Obama is the symbolic embodiment of the Democratic Party for most Americans. His success at passing health care reform, energy legislation, bank re-regulation and achieving an economic recovery will have a big impact on how they think Democrats are doing -- whether they start out with an inclination to vote Democratic, or to take another bet on the Republicans.

In the first four years of his Presidency, Bill Clinton never had job approval ratings comparable to Barack Obama's. But in early 1994 he had a positive rating of 48% and a negative of only 39% -- a net positive of 9% in the CBS-New York Times poll. By the time Senate Majority leader George Mitchell declared Clinton's health care reform proposal dead in September 1994, he had slipped to 42 positive and 49 negative -- minus 7% net negative. He had suffered a 16% swing in the polls. By mid-term Election Day in 1994 he still had a net negative of 5% (43% positive, 48% negative).

Congressional approval ratings followed the same negative path, falling almost 10% during 1994 to just above 20% right before the cataclysmic 1994 election when Newt Gingrich's Republican majority took power for the first time in 40 years.

The Republican special-interest attack on the Clinton health care reform plan certainly had an effect on these numbers. But just as important was the failure of the President and Congress to pass his program. People support winners. Obama's campaign exploded when he won Iowa -- had he come in second that wouldn't have happened.

Everything we know about psychology tells us that we like people when they win, we don't like them as much when they lose. We are more likely to follow them when they win. We're more likely to think they know what they're doing when they win.

What's more, if they lose a legislative battle, we are more likely to believe that the proposal they were promoting was a loser too -- a bad idea, a dog.

That goes for the voters in swing districts like anywhere else. A President, a Congress, a Democratic party that wins, that successfully makes change to improve people's lives, is simply more likely to get voter support than one that fails to make change, fails to deliver the goods, or looks disorganized and powerless -- and promotes policies that "lose."

In addition, losing demoralizes the hard core. They are less likely to work hard, and to turn out to vote.

That is exactly what happened in the 1994 elections. Democrats lost 54 seats. Of those, 36 were incumbents. It wasn't the members from strong Democratic districts, who had fought hard for health care reform, who lost. It was mainly members from swing districts, rural districts and southern districts.

The Clinton health care bill never came to a vote in the House, but only 11 of the 36 incumbents who lost had co-sponsored the bill. Many of the 23 others had opposed the Clinton health care plan. Didn't matter; they were the biggest political victims of the failure of health care reform.

Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) was one of the leaders of the opposition. He left the House to run for the Senate in 1994 and lost.

And it wasn't just that swing voters lost faith in Democrats. Base Democratic voters failed to turn out. Republican base voters -- smelling Democratic blood -- turned out in record numbers.

Of course none of this should come as a surprise. Look at our recent political history. The principal political victims of the disastrous Bush legacy were not mainly hard right Republicans from strong Republican districts. They were often Republican "moderates" like Connecticut's Christopher Shays. That's why New England no longer has any Republican Members of the House. That's why the Republican Caucus in the House is now mainly composed of members from highly Republican districts and the South.

So the next time a Member of Congress tells you that he'd love to vote for the President's health care reform package but he represents a tough swing district, remind him about all the ex-members of Congress who said the same thing in 1994 and were retired by the voters to resume their careers selling insurance or practicing law.

They are much better off taking the political risk of helping a Democratic President be successful in passing health care reform than they are taking the political risk of opposing a Democratic President who then fails to pass health care reform.

The odds are very good that if they choose the latter course, it will be their political bodies on the gurneys being rolled into the political emergency room.

Robert Creamer is a longtime political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.