Monthly Archives: January 2010

VPR, Health Care, and Viewer Mail: Did Obama Make A Mistake?

I’ll be back on Vermont Public Radio this Monday as a guest on Jane Lindholm’s Vermont Edition program.   We’ll be discussing Obama’s first year in office. You can email questions to VPR in advance – as I recall, some of the best questions and phone calls during my last visit came from regular contributors to this blog, so I encourage you to participate again.  The program begins at noon – send your questions in advance to:

(As always, I’ll be playing our word game contest in which I try to incorporate three words chosen by a random word generator into my answers, just to keep the vast VPR audience on edge.  Monday’s words will be:  “accord”, “smoking” and “perpetual.”)

A good chunk of that discussion will undoubtedly focus on health care.  In anticipation of that topic, I want to answer some excellent questions several of you asked regarding health care and Obama’s first year in general, and to pose one of my own.  Health care is in the news again today thanks in part to this New York Times article in which Rahm Emanuel appears to indicate that passing health care has dropped down on the list of Obama’s legislative priorities.  Emanuel’s comments are not surprising; those of you participating in the live blogging of the State of the Union will recall that I thought Obama clearly signaled that he no longer was willing to expend time or political capital in getting the current health care legislation through Congress.

In reading through the various blogs after the speech, I detected what I saw as a stubborn resistance among progressives to read the writing on the wall indicating that health care reform is dead, at least in the short term; more than one blogger insisted that Obama had stated in his speech his renewed commitment to pass the health care legislation now in play on the Hill. In their defense, he did renew his support for health care reform, at least in the abstract, by saying, “Here’s what I ask Congress, though: Don’t walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.” And, as Chris A. argued in his comments on the election night blog, there may be good political reasons to pass the Senate bill. Chris suggests that Democrats in the House who voted for health care will pay a bigger political cost with voters in November if they appear to reverse themselves by not supporting health care reform, and that the best way to get legislation passed is for House Democrats to support the Senate bill.  That may be true for most of those Representatives who supported health care, but I believe the aftershocks from Brown’s election, as interpreted through the media, changed enough votes in the House to make this strategy politically untenable.  Simply put, I don’t believe there’s enough political support in Congress to pass health care legislation in either chamber in its current form.

The placement of Obama’s “support” for health care near the end of his speech, against the backdrop of the political calendar that shows midterms just around the corner, clearly told me that Obama had come to the same conclusion, and that he preferred to put further health care debate on the back burner.  Emanuel’s comments add further credence to that supposition, as did Obama’s remarks during his open debate yesterday with Republican leaders. In that meeting Obama made no effort to provide a roadmap for ending the deadlock on health care and admitted that some of the closed-door dealmaking that led to passage of the House and Senate bills was “messy”.

With the midterms now less than a year away, time is working against those who support passing health care legislation. This raises the question: was pursuing health care reform a mistake? Yesterday, retiring Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, now freed from the constraints of running for reelection, said it was; Obama, he argued, would have been better off focusing on the economy during his first year.  Hindsight is 20/20 of course.  But I said from the beginning of Obama’s election that he was unlikely to get Congress to pass sweeping health care reform, and that instead his best strategy was to lower expectations and focus on more modest changes, such as insurance reform and cost control within the context of the current fee-for-service, third-party payer health care system.  My reasoning had  less to do with the specter of Republican obstructionism and more to do with the inevitable drop in public support as health care moves from an abstract promise of “reform” to the specific legislative compromises that must inevitably be made to get reform legislation through Congress.  Remember, in the end the public doesn’t consider health care legislation in a vacuum – they compare it to the status quo.  For much of the public, the uncertainties associated with the reform proposals, particular on the cost side, outweigh their misgivings toward the current health care system.

I’m working on a longer post that examines why health care reform did not pass despite Democratic majorities in both chambers, but let me end this post by asking: Is Dorgan right?  Did Obama make a mistake in signing on to health care reform?  Or was the mistake perhaps in the tactics he used in trying to get Congress, and the public on board?

These are the questions I’ll try to address on Monday’s VPR show but I’m eager to hear your talking points beforehand.

How High Does a Dead Cat Bounce? Assessing the Likely Impact of Obama’s State of the Union speech

The State of the Union serves three broad purposes:

  1. It is theater, in the sense of watching the nation’s political actors perform their traditional roles (greeting the president, standing, applauding) and occasionally ad-libbing (“You lie!”) – see Justice Alito’s mouthing objections to Obama’s mischaracterization of the meaning of the recent Supreme Court decision;
  2. It serves as an agenda-setting device that allows a president to present his legislative “wish-list”, but without necessarily influencing any of the factors that will determine whether that wish list is fulfilled;
  3. It is a modern day affirmation of a tradition with roots tracing back to the Constitutional provision that presidents should, from time to time, inform Congress of the State of the Union.

What it typically does not do is provide a president with any additional political leverage, either within Congress or among the public at large.  Those relationships are governed by more fundamental factors that usually swamp any short-term effects of the State of the Union speech.

This is easy to forget if you are one of those political junkies who pay attention to things like the polling of focus groups consisting of people who watched Obama’s speech, or who get your political analysis from one of those echo-chamber blog sites.  For example, CNN conducted a pre- and post-speech survey and found that Obama’s address was received very positively or positively by 78% of those in the focus group.  Seventy-one percent of respondents said that the agenda Obama proposed will move the country in the right direction.   This assessment was echoed in blogs like Nate Silver’s, who pronounced the President’s speech a “three-run homer.”

The problem with these results is that they gauge the reaction of those who actually watched the speech – and that audience is almost always skewed toward a president’s supporters.  (Hence, Silver’s assessment.)  Consider this data from Gallup:

Clinton’s audience was predominantly Democrats, and Bush’s Republican (ignoring independents).  I expect that Obama’s will skew toward Democrat.   They are, not surprisingly, likely to gauge the speech pretty favorably (“a three-run homer!”)

However, when we look at the country as a whole, the impact of Obama’s speech is likely to be trivial.  Consider this data from Gallup assessing the post-State of the Union bounce achieved by presidents dating back to Carter in 1978:

The average “bounce” across 24 State of the Union speeches is actually negative, although essentially zero.  (But  see Clinton’s speech in 1998 – can anyone suggest an explanation for his 10-point jump?)  In short, expect Wednesday’s speech to have no impact whatsoever on Obama’s political standing among the public or within Congress.

This is not to say the speech served no purpose – it did.  It is clear that Obama used it to signal a change in direction in his presidency, with a renewed emphasis on a more moderate political tone and a laser-like focus on one issue: jobs, jobs, jobs.  Health care and foreign policy are on the back burner.  His goal is to prevent a reprise of 1994, when Clinton’s failure to get health care through helped create conditions for a Republican landslide in the first midterm elections.  For the next several months, expect the White House to be in full campaign mode as it seeks to minimize losses in the upcoming midterms.

In the meantime, I’ll post the post-speech data as soon as I get it.

P.S.  Great participation and excellent comments on Wednesday’s live blogging.  Max was the only one who called the over/under on the use of the word fight correctly.  (Sorry, Max – no t-shirt awarded in this contest.)  I count six uses by Obama of the word “fight”, not counting “firefighters”, which falls three short of the over/under I posted at the outset of the speech.

Live Blogging the State of the Union Address

9 pm. Ok. we are watching the NBC feed.

Things to look forward to tonight:

1. The media narrative.  Look for lots of talk about Obama needing to “right the ship”, reassert control of the agenda, turn things around, reconnect with the people, etc.

2.  Tone – look for Obama to come out with his new populist stance.   I’ve put the over/under for mentions of “fight” or “fighting” or versions thereof  at 9.

3.  Republican reaction – they want to signal their willingness to work with Obama, so can’t come across as too stridently opposed.  Look for them to applaud on jobs related tax cuts or education.

4.  Audience reaction.  Historically, presidents rarely get a popular boost from the state of the union, in large part because the audience is predominantly supporters.

5. Obama needs to simplify his message. He has a tendency to work too many themes into his national addresses.  He needs to focus on one thing tonight:  jobs, jobs, jobs.

6.  Other than a brief mention of health care – I don’t think he’ll focus too much on it.  Of course, he’ll stress the need to pass comprehensive health care, and it will get big applause from Democrats, but I think that train may have left the station.

(Jack’s taking the over on the fighting references.  Anyone else?)

He’s on – look for about an hour speech  with applause.

Boy he sounds alot like Fred Armisen!

Worst of storm has passed….perhaps.

Chris – good catch.  Jefferson presented it in writing to Congress and that set a precedent until Wilson.

As usual,  Nancy is chewing something – incredibly distracting. Is it a throat lozenge?

He’s clearly taking the middle-class, man of the people populist tack.

First applause line:  hopefulness hits home!

We do not give up, we don’t quit (Churchill – we will never surrender)….applause again for the Amurican people…

And who are the evil people!  the banks!  We all hate the banks! (How’s Tim Geithner feeling right now?)

Oh, he supported the “last administration’s bank bailout program” – how long can he play that card?

I forget – did he cut taxes?

Real interesting play here – do you notice how playful he is?  A real effort here to break through the “cerebral aloof” Obama and try to connect with the middle class.  It’s all part of the package – jobs, taxes, man of the people and more jobs for real people.  Smart, smart, smart!

And no mention of health care!

Jobs, jobs, jobs.  He gets it.  The question is: how do you pay for a jobs  bill.

Republicans like America’s business!

A critic might suggest that in order to grow businesses, you need banks to loan money… and he jumps on it.   Fitting with the populist theme, we are helping “small business” – never the big businesses.

Tax credits – this is a line out of the Republican playbook – ended capital gains.

The Left has to be incensed here – this is really a pretty centrist agenda: tax cuts, tax breaks, tax incentives –  Obama has seen the light, and it ain’t the moving Left.   Say goodbye Daily Kos, Andy Sullivan, etc.

Is that the first mention of health care?  Chris says yes…

“I’m not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!”  Let’s go Otter!

Where is this segment going besides drawing applause?  is he leading up to health care?

Financial regulation – a veto threat!  He’s trying to show some spine.  I’m sure people are wishing he said the same thing for health care  – where is health care?

How the times have changed – bipartisan support for nuclear power!   Offshore oil drilling!  Nancy just swallowed her tongue!   What party is he representing?  This is amazing!!

This is a rather lukewarm endorsement of the climate bill!

Jaime has a link to what commentators are saying (see her comment for the link)

We are all for exports, but how do you increase them when companies are laying off workers and banks aren’t loaning? This is meaningless boilerplate – enforcing trade agreements, strengthen trade relations, blah blah blah. Meaningless…

Education is a potentially bipartisan issue – Bush capitalized on this.  I think he can get Republicans on this….a mixture of spending and stricter accountability.  Win-Win…

Community colleges – another shoutout to working families, and a shot at banks profiting on students loans for good measure.  Again, a nice touch…

Here that Midd students?  You shouldn’t go broke listening to me lecture!

Finally – health care.  No laughing matter….

This ought to be interesting – does he double down, or pay lip service to reform?  (A shoutout to Michelle – she doesn’t look real enthused!)

The CBO estimate just isn’t going to cut it.  If he’s serious about reform he’d drop that.  This is lip service unless he comes out specifically for what’s in one of the two current bills.  Let’s see if he’s serious…

Take another look?  He just kicked it under the bus…

Health care just died.   He threw in the towel….A year of effort and it’s done.

Let’s move on … and he is on to the deficit….and blaming the previous guys…

(Chris A.  – are you arguing that he’s serious about pushing for health care?)

Nancy does not like a spending freeze…

A second veto threat – but this is largely meaningless because he just exempted roughly 3/5 of spending in the form of Medicare and Social Security and the Defense Department.   Totally meaningless…

Still another bipartisan commission to study Medicare  — politically safe and a clear sign that he’s passing it on to another generation of Americans.

A freeze that takes place next year?  That’s how budgeting works?   There’s the lead Youtube video….sigh…

Who took the “under” on fighting – I haven’t heard the word yet?

(Jack – that’s the second veto threat by my count).

Lobbying disclosure, yawn…. .

See Bert Johnson for an opposing perspective on the impact of the Court decision – he suggests it will have no impact at all, or very little…

Earmark reform.  I hear he also wants to outlaw rain falling on weekends….

Transparency?  After how the health care negotiations took place?

A subtle jab at filibusters and holds…. .

He is still digging the bipartisan hole – it plays well, but it simply is unrealistic without action

(Chris – I think your take on health care is right..)

Amy – yes, it was!

Boy, he’s really playing the “friendly” card…

You watch, he’s still going to have to play tough on security…  and there it is.  More Al Quaeda captured or killed than the previous guy did!

“Combat” troops out means roughly 30,000 Americans will still be there by most estimates – all the troops will not be coming home.

(Chris – don’t pick on Max.  I’m surprised he’s up!)

Instead of going to funerals, Joe Biden does commissions….

Jack – No, he doesn’t really believe we are leaving Iraq, but he gets around it with the use of “combat troops”…..

what consequences, in particular?   My mother used to threaten me with that …. “you just try me!”

jaime – you are absolutely right – really treading a careful line there to sound tough but not alienate the base.

He’s finishing with reference to American values, and relatively bipartisan issues.

Again, how exactly does he work with Congress to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell?  He could end it now, with a stroke of the pen!   This is mostly rhetorical fluff here – no real hard choices, no details, instead an appeal to abstract principles and promises to do “the right thing” with little recognition that if it was so easy to do that, it would have taken place already.

And here’s the reference back to his no Republican or Democratic values – only American values.

Anyone watching focus groups here?  How’s this change mantra playing?  Are people listening?

Too much pointing fingers – this from the guy who spent much of this speech pointing the finger at Bush!

He just threw health care under the bus – and he’s criticizing others for failing to do what’s hard?  Is this playing?

Marty – my read at the outset is that the Republicans were going to play this really safe – they have the political winds at their back and don’t want to provide any pretext for voters to turn against them…

Ok – talking heads time – what are you hearing?  What’s the first take?

My initial thoughts:

1. The obvious omission here was health care – he essentially signaled that he won’t push for the current bill.  It’s back to the drawing board.

2. Second, the Republicans were on their best behavior.  The political winds are at their back and they really didn’t do much catcalling although there were a couple of moments of snickering.

3.  Obama was clearly trying to come across as more personal, more human, more emotional. He understands that people are angry – he’s angry too.

4.  He clearly caught the message from Massachusetts – from here on it’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs…much of the substantive focus was on taxes – cuts, exemptions, credits, etc. – very Republicanesque.  Nuclear power, offshore drilling – he has clearly signaled, in light of Massachusetts, that’s he moving to the Center and daring the Republicans not to work with him.   I think it is a very good strategy, but it will have the netroots in open revolt tomorrow….  .

This is a man who is politically chastened, who sees support among the middle eroding and who is facing a potential loss of the Democrat’s working majority in a matter of months unless the economy begins turning around.

The biggest problem:  can he get a bitterly divided Congress to take up his proposals?


jack agrees, a move to the middle.  Others?  do you agree he threw health care under the bus,  and has adopted Clinton’s triangulation strategy, only this time doing it before losing the Congress, whereas Clinton did it after losing the Congress?

let’s watch the Republican response.  Clearly they’ve learned from the Jindal fiasco, when he gave the speech from a hallway in his house!  This setting is much more fitting…

(Jack – no t-shirt. I didn’t hear fight once.  I heard alot about Amuricans….)

The Republican reaction is on: it’s  jobs, jobs, jobs – and you won’t get it through more government!  It’s an easy pitch, but will it work without being matched with reform?  The private sector got us into this mess  … Republicans have to have a program….I guess the program is Facebook and Twitter – he’s going for the 18-29 year old vote.

Drill, baby, drill!

(Jack – you are welcome – great participation tonight.  Even Max!)

Jaime – agreed.  the techo-references just don’t fly.

Wow – Scott Brown is now the face of the Republican party!   And a shot at Obama and Dem’s for coddling the Christmas bomber.  That’s a winner….

And the common Republican themes – federalism, individual choice, deregulation….the Reagan mantra.

(Is that young lady crying?  Or is she on painkillers?)

OK, that’s it… I’ll be on a bit more taking final thoughts while I unwind with a scotch and, of course, tomorrow I’ll try to give an update on the post-speech reactions.  My sense is that the netroots are going to be completely up in arms here.

Chris – do you mean the “rainbow” coalition seating behind McDonnell?   I thought they were typical republicans!

I have an early departmental meeting tomorrow, so I’m going to call it a night.  Great participation from everyone – you outdid five thirty eight tonight in terms of comments.  And, of course, you were alot smarter… .

More tomorrow…

In Defense of the Senate Filibuster, Take Two

Several posts ago I defended the existence of the Senate filibuster, which has come under fire from liberals because of its impact on the health care debate.  My argument rested on three points:

1. That the increased use of the filibuster during the last half-century reflects not just the growth in partisan polarization in Congress, but also the lowered cost of threatening to filibuster.  Senators are much more willing to simply invoke cloture to forestall a threatened filibuster, which means filibustering a bill is a less time consuming process than it once was. This concern with efficiency is a function of the increased desire by Senators to leave Washington, DC in order to do constituency work in their home state.  So, we shouldn’t conclude that because filibusters and cloture are used more frequently today that the Senate is more susceptible to gridlock than it was 50 years ago.  In fact, according to some political scientists, such as David Mayhew, legislative productivity has not decreased in this time.  The Senate is no more prone to gridlock today than before.

2. That – as currently constituted – the Senate could today easily modify or eliminate the filibuster if a majority of 51 Senators wanted to.  In other words, it is within Democrats’ power right now to end the filibuster, and there is nothing Republicans could do to stop them.

3. That Democrat senators do not eliminate the filibuster because it is one mechanism that protects regional and state interests.  In short, it is an instrument of federalism, and an important safeguard for protecting one’s constituents, whether one is Republican or Democrat.

Judging by your email responses, many (most?) of you remain unconvinced. Several of you emailed articles by Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman and Tom Geoghegan, all of whom criticize the filibuster as a symbol of a broken Senate. And while it is true that their objections to the filibuster are largely rooted in the health care debate (and that none of them seemed to be objecting that much when Democrats were using the filibuster to block George W. Bush’s judicial nominees!), that doesn’t mean their arguments are without merit.  As Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

At the risk of revealing my tiny cognitive capacity, however, let me revisit the argument on behalf of the filibuster by extending my earlier comments. Critics argue that the filibuster is antimajoritarian; that is, it allows a minority of Senators to block proposals supported by large majorities.   So, in the case of health care reform, we have a Democrat President who ran successfully on a promise to reform health care, and who was voted into office along with Democrat majorities in both the Senate and House, in part to fulfill this promise.  A majority of the public, when polled, supported health care reform.  And yet the ability of this majority party to fulfill a basic campaign promise is blocked by a minority of Republicans.  This cannot be what the Framers intended when they established a representative democracy.  As Bob Johnson quite cogently argues in an email to me, the reason we replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution originally was to prevent individual states from blocking efforts to address national problems.

At first glance this looks like a persuasive argument.  But let’s think about it in the context of health care and the current Congress.  The mistake that opponents of the filibuster often make is to equate the sentiments of a majority of Senators with the views of a majority of the public.  But we can see why they are not necessarily equivalent.  Recall that the current Congress is the most polarized since the Civil War; as the figure below shows, there’s not much of a moderate middle, and no overlap between the two parties, ideologically speaking. (Blue lines signify Democrats, solid red are the Republicans.  The X [bottom] axis measures ideology based on voting, and ranges from extreme liberal on the Left to extreme conservatie on the Right.   The  Y [left-hand] axis is the number of members of Congress falling within each space on the ideological continuum.)

polarization 110 CongressHow did Congress get so polarized?  One reason is that increasingly candidates must win a party primary in order to run in the general election. (Prior to the 1960’s party leaders often determined who would run on the party ticket.) Primaries, however, tend to attract a smaller number of voters who are not representative of the electorate at large; instead, they are often single-issue voters drawn from a party’s more extreme wings.  For example, remember the 2006 Democratic primary in Connecticut in which antiwar activist Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman, largely on the strength of Lamont’s antiwar views?  As this chart shows, Lamont won with the support of less than 6% of the voting age population in Connecticut.

connecticut 2006Had Lieberman dropped out rather than run as an independent, Lamont likely would have beaten the Republican candidate – one of a wave of Democrats elected into office in 2006 and 2008.  Instead Lieberman ran in the general election and soundly beat Lamont, based in large part on support from more moderate voters (and not a few Republicans). Lamont’s case is unusual only in that Lieberman did not give up after losing the primary. Changes in how candidates are nominated increasingly mean that voters are forced to choose between two relatively extreme candidates in the general election, neither of whom – as we saw with Lamont – necessarily represents the policy views of the majority of constituents.

The result is a Congress in which neither party is necessarily very representative of the more moderate electorate.   To see this graphically, imagine a bell curve distribution of voters based on ideology, with the most moderate middle in the center under the highest portion of the curve, signifying the greatest number of people.  Now superimpose that on the Congressional polarization chart and you’ll get a sense of what I am arguing – Congress is least representative in the very middle.

Or, consider polling regarding health care.  Americans support the idea of health care reform in the abstract.  But, as happened in 1993, when asked to sign on to particular legislation, with all the tradeoffs reform inevitably entails, support for healthcare drops.  We see this in the following table:

Indeed, the latest Pew survey suggests that health care reform is not even in the top five of issues of concern to Americans.   And yet the health care legislation remains the focus of debate for members of Congress  and policy activists on both sides, with Obama vowing to get some type of health care legislation passed.

You see my point.  A majority of the Senate may favor the current health care bill – maybe even a near supermajority of 59 members.  But that is not always the equivalent of the majority of the electorate because the moderate middle of voters is not always proportionally represented in the Senate.

So, why is this a defense of the filibuster?  Recall that in 2005, Senate Democrats, although in the minority, used the filibuster to prevent George W. Bush’s judicial nominees from coming to a vote.  Harry Reid defended the practice, arguing that Bush’s nominees were not in the political mainstream.  Today, Republicans threaten to filibuster the Democratic health legislation, arguing that it goes too far Left and does not have the support of a majority of the public.  Both sides may be right. That is, the majority party in the Senate in both instances may in fact have been pushing policy views, or nominees with judicial views, that were out of step with mainstream public opinion.

I do not disagree that the filibuster can be used by a minority of Senators to thwart the will of the majority of the Senate – a majority that represents the majority of voters.  We saw that during the civil rights debates when a minority bloc of southern Senators prevented passage of civil rights legislation that most Americans supported.  But what Geoghegan, Klein and Krugman ignore in their zeal to see health care legislation pass  is that the filibuster can also be used to protect the moderate majority against more extremist policies too.  As the Senate becomes increasingly polarized – it is now the most polarized since the Civil War – this latter function of the filibuster is, I argue, increasingly important.

In short, rather than serving only a strictly antimajoritarian purpose, the filibuster serves an additional crucial purpose in the modern Senate:  it protects the majority interest by preventing either wing of the two parties from imposing its own more extremist views. Equally important, the increased use of the filibuster, and cloture votes, does not seem to have slowed legislative productivity, at least according to some political scientists.  Important laws are still passed.  We tend to lose sight of this in the current focus on the inability to pass health care legislation.  Health care legislation may be stuck not because of minority opposition so much as due to flagging popular support.

For some of you, of course, catering to the views of the moderate middle is no virtue.  I’m not necessarily defending a moderate perspective.  I am arguing, however, that the usual case against the filibuster – that it is an antimajoritarian tool that prevents the Senate from fulfilling the will of the people – is not always true.  Sometimes it protects the will of the people.

That’s the defense of the filibuster.  Let the critics respond!

I’ll be on later tonight, live blogging the State of the Union address.   Feel free to join in with commentary (“You Lie!”)

What Can Brown Do For You (Senate Democrats Who Support Health Care Reform, That Is)?

He can help the Democrats pass health care, that’s what.  Indeed, the future of the Democratic health care initiative is, right now, largely in Scott Brown’s hands, and his decisions in the next week may well determine whether the current legislation passes or fails, and in what form.   Here’s why.

Despite efforts by Coakley and Democrats to link Brown to the “Tea Party” movement, Dick Cheney and the extremist wing of the Republican Party, the best evidence I can find suggests that Brown is actually what he claims to be: a moderate Republican.  That is to say, he will likely be placed, ideologically speaking, very close to the voting space occupied by the most liberal Senate Republicans, including Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson.  At least this is the conclusion of political scientist Boris Shor, who has compiled voting records of members of all 50 state legislatures, including those serving in the Massachusetts’ Statehouse.  Using a process that is similar to the one I’ve described in other posts here that ranks members of Congress according to political ideology, Shor concludes: “Brown’s score puts him at the 34th percentile of his party in Massachusetts over the 1995-2006 time period. In other words, two thirds of other Massachusetts Republican state legislators were more conservative than he was. This is evidence for my claim that he’s a liberal even in his own party. What’s remarkable about this is the fact that Massachusetts Republicans are the most, or nearly the most, liberal Republicans in the entire country!”

Here’s Shor’s table of state legislatures’ ideology scores – red signifies Republican legislators in each state legislature, and green are Democrats.  As with the previous ideology scores I’ve used, the more conservative the voting record, the closer the score moves to “2”. An extreme liberal, in contrast, earns a “-2”.  Moderates are closer to “0”.  The longer the “block”, the bigger the party contingent.  The farther apart they are, the more polarized the State Legislature.   States are identified by the abbreviations on the left, Y-axis.  Massachusetts is second from the bottom.

We see, then, that Brown is a relative moderate in a relatively liberal (for Republicans) state party. But Shor takes his analysis one step further and tries to estimate where Brown will be located in the current Senate.  He writes in this post: “[B]ased upon his voting record in the Massachusetts State Senate as well the Votesmart surveys of MA state legislators (include his own from 2002), I estimate that Brown is to the left of the previously leftmost Republican in the Senate, Olympia Snowe of Maine (see her issue positions here) and to the right of the rightmost Democrat in the Senate, Ben Nelson of Nebraska (issue positions here). Just as important, Brown stands to become the pivotal member of the Senate—that is, the 60th by rank most liberal (equivalently, the 41st most conservative)–a distinction previously held by Nelson.”

I alluded to the importance of the “pivotal voter” in an earlier post, but it is worth highlighting again:  if these ideological calculations are correct, Brown is poised to become the 60th most liberal, or 41st most conservative member of the Senate, displacing Ben Nelson from that slot.  As such he is uniquely situated – as Nelson demonstrated in the debate over health care – to leverage his pivotal vote to both shape the content of health care legislation and to extract side payments for himself and the state of Massachusetts.    Not bad for a former centerfold who was written off by almost everyone (including me!) in the campaign to replace Kennedy only two weeks ago!

Remember, Nelson was able to leverage his position as the swing voter in Senate deliberations on the health care legislation to cut a side deal that essentially shifted the cost of increased Medicaid expenditures from Nebraska voters to taxpayers in the rest of the country. Now Brown occupies that position, if Shor’s estimates are correct.

But are they? These rankings are estimates based on votes in the Massachusetts Statehouse, and applied  to try to situate Brown’s likely ideological place in the Senate.  As you might imagine, there’s a degree of uncertainty surrounding these estimates, and as such they can’t be used to definitively predict how someone will vote on any single piece of legislation.  Nonetheless, they do provide evidence that Brown is a moderate Republican, one potentially positioned to determine whether health care goes up or down.  But how can we be sure he will continue voting as a moderate Republican in the Senate?  Keep in mind that he is completing Ted Kennedy’s term, and thus faces election again in the fall, 2012.  If he wants to retain his seat in one of the most liberal states in the union, he’ll have to maintain a moderate to liberal voting record (ignoring, for the moment, the threat of him losing to a conservative in the Massachusetts primary.)  More importantly, however, think back to the spatial voting model that I introduced to you in previous postings.  Where is Brown likely to be most influential?  Not as a conservative voting with the extreme Republican Right.  There he would be the Republican equivalent of Bernie Sanders – someone whose vote the leadership can take somewhat for granted.  There was never any real expectation that those on the Senate Left like Sanders would vote against the Senate bill (or that conservative Republicans would support it).   All the negotiations regarding the details of the bill centered on attracting the vote of the moderate middle.

What this means is that Brown has every incentive to occupy the Snowe-Nelson pivotal voter position.  If he is smart, he is already signaling his open mindedness toward a health care compromise right now.  I know many of you thought the Democrats would move quickly to push through health care legislation before Brown is seated.  I said repeatedly that I thought that was politically naïve and, worse, potentially fatal for Democrats. Given his politically pivotal vote, Democrats have no choice but to sound Brown out.  And he is only too aware that he probably has maximum influence right now, even before he is actually sworn in, because he hasn’t actually cast a vote.  This uncertainty regarding his intentions gives him leverage in the health care proceedings. (According to this story in the Boston Herald, Brown is already angling for a seat on one of the more prestigious Senate committee, such as Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Appropriations.)   I realize, of course, that Brown campaigned against the current health care legislation. But that doesn’t mean he won’t accept any bill coming out of the Senate.  The combination of electoral pressures (he wants to retain his seat in a predominantly blue state) and the potential for him to leverage his position to aid Massachusetts may encourage Brown to try to forge a working compromise with Democrats and moderate Republicans. Keep in mind that more than 70% of  Brown’s supporters, according to polling data, want him to work with Democrats in the Senate, rather than work with Republicans against the Democrats.

The health care debate is at a pivotal juncture.  Brown is perfectly positioned to influence that debate.  The question is: what can Brown do for you?  The answer?  What can the Democrats do for Brown!  How far is the Democratic Senate leadership willing to go to forge a working compromise with Brown?  (This assumes they do not do the stupid thing and try to get the House to pass the current Senate health legislation.)

In my next post I’ll explore the details of what a health care compromise might consist.