Category Archives: Democrats

Who Will Be the Democrats’ Mezvinsky on Health Care?

The just-released Congressional Budget Office projection that, if passed,  the Senate health care bill will reduce the deficit over a 10-year period promises to provide some political cover for “Blue Dog” Democrats who worry about the fiscal implications of another hugely expensive government program. If media reports are to be believed, Democrats – buoyed in part by the CBO projections – are now poised to pass the Senate health care legislation, although the latest whip count suggests they have almost no votes to spare.

The blue dogs’ worry about supporting the health care bill even with the CBO projection is understandable considering that public opposition to the health care bills being discussed in Congress has remained quite stable over the past few months. According to the Pew survey center, “As has been the case since last July, there is more opposition than support for these proposals. Currently, 48% say they generally oppose the health care bills in Congress while 38% say they generally favor them. That is almost identical to the balance of opinion in February and January.  Moreover, a plurality of those polled would prefer that Congress start over”:

Democrats’ uncertainty regarding the final vote will inevitably mean that some of the undecideds will leverage their position to extract concessions from the House leadership.  The latest effort to do so centers on regional disparities in Medicare payments.  But the flip side of this is the fear by many Democrats that they will be “Mevinskied”,  a reference to the Pennsylvania Representative, Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky, who lost her seat 18 years ago as a result of casting one of the deciding votes that pushed Bill Clinton’s first budget over the bar. Clinton had been elected in part on his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. Once in office, however, he inherited a growing budget deficit that was much larger than he anticipated.  He also  faced a Congress composed of almost an identical partisan composition as the Congress that Obama confronts today.  Reversing his campaign pledge, his first budget included a tax hike designed to cut into the burgeoning budget deficit, but many Democrats, including Mezvinsky, were leery of signing on to it.  In the end, with no Republican support at all, passage of Clinton’s budget came down to a handful of Democratic votes in both the House and Senate.  Much like the current health care debate, Clinton supporters portrayed the budget vote as a referendum on his presidency; if it failed to pass, his political capital would be severely damaged, jeopardizing his entire legislative program – including health care reform. In the end, he was able to attract just enough votes to pass the budget, in large part because Mezvinsky, the freshman Pennsylvania Representative, voted for the President’s budget. In a recent op ed piece,  Margolies defended her budget vote, and urged Democrats to emulate her by voting their conscience regarding the current health bill. Eighteen years ago, however, she was expressing a different emotion, begging the White House not to press her to support the President’s budget because she feared it would likely cost her seat in the House. A tearful President, feeling her pain, promised he would campaign for her reelection if she voted for his budget.  She did – and he did,  but to no avail.  Mezvinsky’s vote was one of two that put the President’s budget over the top by a final vote of 218-216.  Republicans chanted “bye-bye Marjorie” as her vote was recorded – and they were right. Despite Clinton’s efforts, she was was defeated for reelection in 1994, largely on the basis of that single vote.  Writing 18 years later, Margolies says she doesn’t regret the vote,and she urges Democrats to follow her lead: “I urge you simply to cast the vote you can be proud of next week, next year and for years to come. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t change my vote.”  In the next breath, however, she admits: “Then again, what do I know? I was a lousy politician.”

Will Obama need another Mezvinsky to step forward to save health care?  And if he does, will it be “a lousy politician” who loses her seat in order to save the President?

Daily Kos the Prophet Warns of Impending Doom for Democrats

In a recent widely-read column in The Hill (a magazine devoted to covering Congress), Markos Moulitsas warns of impending catastrophe for Democrats in the 2010 midterms.  Under the headline “Brutal poll for Dems”, Moulitsas cites the results of a recent survey commissioned by his website, The Daily Kos, that reveals a huge disparity in the number of Democrats and Republicans who say they are “definitely” or “probably” likely to vote in the congressional races next year.  Moulitsas writes, “Among Republican respondents, 81 percent said they were definitely or probably going to vote, versus only 14 percent who were definitely or not likely to do so. Among independent voters, it was 65-23. Among Democrats? A woeful 56-40: Two out of every five Democrats are currently unlikely to vote.”  His conclusion? “If these numbers hold for the next year…If base Democratic voters don’t turn out, like what happened in New Jersey and Virginia this year, Democrats will suffer at the ballot box.”

Moulitsas trumpets these numbers as evidence that the Democratic base is turned off by Obama’s and the Democratically-controlled Congress’ tepid leadership and failure to pursue the more progressive policies that Moulitsas champions.  He may be right.  But the poll results he cites (which, by the way, are not actually linked to in the article) don’t necessarily support his argument.  Here’s why.

To begin, the Daily Kos poll surveys all adults, not just likely voters. You’ve heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: polls of all adults are typically weighted more heavily to Democrats than are polls of likely voters.  However, the Kos’ “nonpartisan” poll actually includes fewer Democrats and Republicans than many polls because it has separate categories for not only independents, but also categories labeled “other” and “not vote” (the latter presumably refers to people who didn’t vote in the last election and thus aren’t affiliated with any party.)  In fact, if you look at the crosstabs for the actual poll, as I did, you’ll find that the respondents break down into 31% Democrats, 22% Republicans, 25% independents, 17% “nonvoters” and 5% other.  For comparison purposes, the most recent Gallup poll breaks down the public’s partisan affiliation as 35% Democrat,  28% Republican and 35% independent.

Why is that important?  Because Moulitsas bases his prediction largely by comparing turnout rates among Democrats and Republicans, who comprise barely more than half of his survey.  You wouldn’t know this by reading the article which merely references the turnout percentages within each party.

However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that the percentages are an accurate predictor of the actual voting by Democrats and Republicans next November. Doesn’t that disparity in likely turnout still mean a bloodbath for Democrats as Moulitsas says?  No, but again you need to look at the actual survey to see why not.  Moulitsas compares two percentages – the 81% of Republicans in the poll that say they will likely vote versus the “woeful” 56% of Democrats.  But it you translate that into actual numbers, that is, if you take the percentage of the actual number of Democrats and Republicans who are surveyed, you might come to a different conclusion. Eighty one percent of 526 Republicans (the number in the sample) equals 426 Republicans likely to vote in 2010 versus the 51% of the 744 Democrats sampled which comes to…. drum roll, please… 417 Democrats likely to vote.  That’s a difference of 9 likely voters, or less than 1% in a survey with a margin of error of 2%.  In other words, given the current partisan composition of the electorate as indicated in the survey, these turnout figures – based on Moulitsas’ own logic – suggest a dead heat in 2010 (that is, if we assume straight party voting, and ignore independent and other voters who comprise 47% of the survey).

Now, one can spin these numbers any way one wants.  Certainly the lower projected turnout isn’t the best news for Democrats.  But Moulitsas could have easily (and accurately) headlined his story as follows, “Survey suggests Democrats poised to break even in 2010 midterm congressional elections.”   Indeed, an equally viable spin is that this survey is exceedingly good news for Democrats, since the party that holds the White House has, with two exceptions, lost seats in Congress during the first midterm dating back to every president since FDR.  In 2010, however, Democrats might buck history and break even!

But that spin doesn’t serve Moulitsas’ purpose, which is to castigate Obama and Democrats for not embracing the Daily Kos worldview.   And I don’t blame Moulitsas for putting the more pessimistic gloss on the survey.  There is a reason liberals and progressives flock to the Daily Kos website in such great numbers (and why I lurk there to see what the left wing is saying, just as I survey conservative websites to get the opposing view.) Moulitsas and his colleagues are skilled preachers. As I noted in an interview with a local reporter, websites like Kos’ serve as the equivalent of political churches, where like-minded devotees gather together to read from the same hymnal containing familiar doctrines, and to hear sermons from ministers who share their political convictions. (And where sinners, like those who supported Hillary in 2008, are excommunicated and cast, weeping and gnashing their teeth, into darkness.)  The Daily Kos website is comforting and reassuring and a reaffirmation that there is at least one place where people have the correct outlook on life, even if the rest of the world is populated by goose-stepping, bible-thumping, gun-toting fascists that hate Mom, America and Apple Pie. (Upon consideration, it’s a lot like living in Vermont.  Or teaching at Middlebury College. )  And the conservatives have their own “churches of the blog” as well where actual gun-toting bible thumpers can mingle among their own fascist kind, like bankers and insurance executives.

My point is that these blogs serve an important function, but it isn’t to teach you about politics, or even give you the “truth” about political affairs (if by truth one means what can be demonstrated to be factual.)  They attract many readers for the same reason that churches attract numerous worshipers.  But you don’t go to church expecting to learn how to operate heavy machinery – you go to commune with like-minded people (and to save your soul). For the same reason, you shouldn’t go to the Daily Kos website, or read Andrew Sullivan, or Michelle Malkin expecting to learn the facts about presidential or national politics.  That’s not their purpose.  And when they do post a column purporting to give you the facts, as Moulitsas does regarding the impending Democratic catastrophe, alarms bells should sound and you should immediately begin checking the details.

Praise the Lord. Pass the Facts. End of Sermon.


CORRECTION:  An earlier version of this post misspelled Moulitsas’ name  – I think I’ve corrected all references now.

Do Democrats Have the Senate Votes to Pass Health Care? Here’s What to Look For

Do Democrats have the votes to pass health care legislation in the Senate?  Political scientists have a somewhat crude but conceptually simple way of analyzing legislative outcomes that may be useful in helping understand the likely Senate voting patterns on health care, beginning with tomorrow’s crucial cloture vote.   It begins with a simple spatial model of voting.

Let us array the 100 Senators from left to right, using the latest roll call-based data to estimate their underlying ideology.   So, on the far Left we have Democrats Durbin(D-IL),  Whitehouse (D-RI) and Harkin (D-IA).  The Far Right, meanwhile, is anchored by Republicans Coburn (R-OK), DeMint (R-SC) and Bunning (R-KY).  Occupying the ideological center is Baucus (D-MT), flanked on either side by Dorgan (D-ND) and Lieberman (D-CT). In a simple spatial voting model, in which senators vote according to their ideology along a single dimension, who wields the most power?  The median voter (or voters) occupying the middle ground, ideologically speaking.  In other words, if health care legislation is to pass the Senate, according to this spatial model it will be legislation that is shaped to attract the support of the moderate middle senators such as Lieberman, Dorgan and Baucus.

The intuition behind this is easy to see:   If health care legislation is introduced that appeals to the Far Right – say a plan based on creating Health Savings accounts and subsidies to states that reduce health care costs – there will be too many Senators on the Left who prefer a more progressive policy, and the conservative policy won’t pass.  Similarly, legislation that is supported by those on the Far Left – a single payer, government-financed system, for example – won’t have the votes to pass because it will lose the support of the more numerous Senators to the Right.

However, the situation in the Senate is a bit more complicated than that.  First, Senators don’t simply decide whether to support health care legislation based on the details of the health care plan alone.  Instead, what they do is compare the proposed legislation to the status quo – the system of fee-for-services, employer-sponsored plans on which most Americans rely.  Each Senator must decide: do I think the proposed Democratic plan is an improvement over doing nothing – that is, maintaining the status quo, or not? In other words, for many senators, given the choice of the Democratic plan or doing nothing – the latter option may be more appealing.

There is a second wrinkle that must be considered as well in forecasting the Senate vote: the existence of the filibuster.  As many of you know, under Senate rules, most legislation is drawn up using unanimous consent agreements.  As the name suggests, these are agreements that stipulate the details under which legislation will be considered: what amendments will be allowed, how long it will be debated, etc., and they require all Senators to sign on if they are to be in play. However, on some contentious issues – and health care is one of them – Senators cannot achieve consensus on the details governing debate.  The majority leadership is then forced to ask for a vote to pass a motion to proceed that, in effect, allows legislation to reach the floor for debate.

Lacking a unanimous consent agreement, that motion to proceed can be opposed through a filibuster. (Contrary to popular perceptions, filibusters rarely consist of a Senator occupying the podium by reading for hours on end from Moby Dick, or the phone book. Instead, it usually means the use of procedural tactics – quorum calls, motions to read the bill in its entirety – designed to delay the vote.) To prevent a filibuster – that is, to invoke cloture – Senate rules require 60 votes, not a simple majority of 51.

On Saturday, the Democrats will try to do just that – to invoke cloture to allow a vote on the motion to proceed to consider the Democratic-sponsored health care legislation. Note that this changes our calculations based on our simple spatial model of voting. The pivotal voter(s) now become(s) the Senator(s) who occupy(ies) roughly the 60th position away from the extreme Left of the Senate ideological spectrum (that is, the 40th position from the Right).  This is because the Senate bill under debate is trying to move health care policy to the Left from the status quo located on the Right – that is, it is trying to make health care more progressive.  (It is actually a bit more complicated – we have to worry about the 60th Senator from the Right as well, but I’ll ignore this permutation of the voting model for the moment.)

Who occupies this 40th position from the Right?   As of today, that would be Nebraskan Democrat Ben Nelson. Our model suggests that he holds the pivotal vote in this debate.  Of course, because our ideological measures are at best approximations, and because we can’t be sure where the current “status quo” health care falls on the ideological spectrum, let me list the four closest Senators on either side of this pivotal filibuster-proof point.

To Nelson’s right, we have four Republicans:

Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)

Susan Collins (R-Maine)

George Voinovich (R-Ohio)

Debra Murkowksi. (R-Arkansas)

To his Left:

Evan Bayh (D-Indiana)

Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri)

Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin)

Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas)

Our spatial model, then, predicts that health care legislation will pass the Senate only if these Senators, (or at least enough of them to reach 60 votes) prefer the Democratic bill to the existing status quo.

What this means is that in fashioning the Democratic alternative to the status quo, Harry Reid had to calibrate the components of the bill in precise fashion.  If he makes the bill too far Left by, for example, including the stronger version of the public option and the more progressive funding mechanism contained in the House bill, he would lose votes, like Nelson’s, from those occupying this strategic 60th position. As it is, even the milder version of the public option contained in the Senate bill, was enough to drive the few moderate Republicans such as Snowe, from supporting this bill.   This suggests any bill farther to the Left had no chance to pass.  In short, given the position of the status quo, and the current ideological makeup of the Senate, it appears Reid got the most liberal bill out of the Senate that he could.

If this simple spatial analysis is correct, it has several important implications for the vote on the Senate bill.

1.  My guess, based on Nelson’s public comments, is that the Democrats have enough votes to invoke cloture tomorrow.  Note, however, this only means the bill will be brought to the Senate floor for debate. It is no guarantee it will pass.  In other words, if he votes to invoke cloture, the bill will proceed to the floor for debate.

2. Whatever comes out of the Senate will be a more conservative bill than what passed the House.  This is because the House votes based on a simple majority, and the median voter is located much closer to the center of the Democratic party, ideologically speaking.

3. It is possible to change the projected Senate voting patterns in one of two ways.  First, by making side payments to the pivotal voters, in effect buying their support by offering some other tangible concession.   If you are the 60th Senator, now is the time to leverage that position for all it is worth. More broadly, if Reid, (or Obama, working through Senate intermediaries) can introduce a second dimension to the voting calculus of individual Senators, then a new voting configuration might arise.  What do I mean by a second dimension?  Suppose a Senator considers the vote not just in terms of how “progressive” health care reform is, but whether it allows taxpayer dollars to cover abortions, or whether illegal immigrants are granted access to the proposed insurance exchanges.  Or, suppose the party leadership pressures moderates to support the bill in order not to damage Obama’s presidency.  In other words, by introducing a second component to the decision calculus, voting patterns can vary from what one might expect looking at a simple one-dimensional model.

4. It is possible to get around the 60-vote requirement using something called “reconciliation” (and Chris Abbot asked me about this some time ago), but for reasons I can address in another post, it is unlikely to be used with health care.

With these caveats in mind, the simple spatial model introduced here suggests that cloture will be invoked if Nelson is in favor.

In my next post, I look at the factors likely to influence the votes of these ten Senators on the final health care legislation. As an incentive to pay attention, however, I’ll give out an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt to anyone who can tell me what’s going to happen in the final health care Senate vote (not the conference bill, but the current Senate bill).  Give me the final vote totals and tell me which Democrats, if any, defect from the majority, and which Republicans, if any, cross over and vote with the Democrats.

A Quick Look at the House Vote On Health Care: Who Defected?

Most of you woke up to the news that the Democrat-controlled House passed a health care bill last night on an almost straight party line vote, 220-215.  Only one Republican voted with 219 Democrats to support the bill, while 39 Democrats joined with 176 Republicans to oppose it.  The almost unanimous Republican opposition surprised no one, since they have signaled from the start of the House debate that they could not support the basic framework of the majority party bill.  What was more interesting, however, was the opposition from the Democrats, because it foreshadows the difficulties the bill is likely to face in the Senate.  With that in mind, I took a quick look at who, among the Democrats, opposed their leadership.  The results are a reminder that we are governed by a geographically-based congressional system – not a presidential one, and that members of Congress are acutely responsive to local electoral forces.

Here is a table listing the 39 Democrats who bucked their own leadership to vote against the House bill. In the last column I list whether their vote against the House health care bill could be predicted based on whether their district went for McCain in 2008.  This is a crude measure of district sentiment, but as you’ll see it does provide some analytic leverage.

Representative State -District McCain Vote in 2008 (% of total vote) Obama  Vote Did Representative Vote with district sentiment based on Presidential Vote in 2008?
Adler NJ 3 47 52 NO
Altmire PA 4 55 44 YES
Baird WA 3 46 52 NO
Barrow GA 12 45 54 NO
Boccieri OH 16 50 48 YES
Boren OK 2 66 34 YES
Boucher VA 9 59 40 YES
Boyd FL 2 54 45 YES
Bright AL 2 63 36 YES
Chandler KY 6 55 43 YES
Childers MS 1 62 38 YES
Davis AL 7 27 72 NO
Davis TN 4 64 34 YES
Edwards TX 17 67 32 YES
Gordon TN 6 62 37 YES
Griffith AL 5 61 38 YES
Herseth Sandlin SD (all) 53 45 YES
Holden PA 17 51 48 YES
Kissell NC 8 47 53 NO
Kosmas FL 24 51 49 YES
Kratovil MD 1 58 40 YES
Kucinich OH 10 39 59 NO
Markey CO 4 50 49 YES
Marshall GA 8 56 43 YES
Massa NY 29 51 48 YES
Matheson UT 2 57 39 YES
McIntyre NC 7 52 47 YES
McMahon NY 13 51 49 YES
Melancon LA 3 61 37 YES
Minnick ID 1 62 36 YES
Murphy CT 5 42 56 NO
Nye VA 2 49 51 NO
Peterson MN 7 50 47 YES
Ross AR 4 58 39 YES
Shuler NC 11 52 47 YES
Skelton MO 4 61 38 YES
Tanner TN 8 56 43 YES
Taylor MS 4 68 32 YES
Teague MN 2 50 49 YES

We see that 31 of the 39 Democrats (those in bold-face type) who voted against the health bill represent districts that supported McCain over Obama in the 2008 presidential election.  This includes many first-term Democrats who barely won in districts that historically tend to vote Republican. (Keep in mind that a few of the Democrats opposing the bill did so because they felt it wasn’t progressive enough.)  To put it another way, there were 48 districts, by my count, that split their ticket in 2008 by voting a Democrat in as representative but who supported McCain over Obama in the presidential election.  Only 17 of those Democrats felt comfortable voting for health care reform.

This is why it is so difficult for presidents to exercise any leverage within Congress on key votes like health care reform.  Although congressional races have become increasingly nationalized in recent years, it is still the case that representatives respond largely to district-level factors. Unlike their counterparts in parliamentary systems, presidents cannot call for new elections when they lose a crucial vote, and they must rely on the party leadership to rally votes on their behalf.

To put this in perspective, consider this: the Democrats control the House by an 81-seat majority, 258-177.  And yet on the most critical vote the party leadership is likely to face during the entire congressional session, they lost 39 members and were only able to pass the bill by five votes.  And it is almost certainly the case that this legislation will not survive a conference with the Senate in this form.

I’ll have more to say on the House vote and likely Senate deliberations in a later post, but I wanted to use this vote to remind you, once again, just how limited a president’s power is in our system.

(After painstakingly constructing this table, I see the NY Times has a much more detailed chart here.  That’s what I get for going to the roll call listing first!)

Does the “Specter” of a filibuster-proof Senate really help the Democrats?

In an earlier blog comment, Jack Goodman asked me about a Arlen Specter-Tom Ridge matchup in the 2010.  I suggested that Ridge, a former Governor in that state, was the type of moderate Republican who could defeat Specter, which was one reason why I didn’t think Specter’s Senate voting would move very far Left, ideologically, despite his new party label.  I have no idea if Ridge is running, but Quinnipiac just released polling data (see here) confirming my hunch.   In the first survey of Pennsylvania voters since Specter’s defection, it shows Specter and Ridge running neck-and-neck; Specter leads 46-43, with 8% undecided – a lead that is about the same as the poll’s 2.9% margin of error.

In contrast, the same poll shows Specter trouncing Republican congressman Pat Toomey, 52-33, with 10% undecided.

Against either Ridge or Toomey, Specter enjoys strong support among Democrats; the numbers are 84-5 against Toomey, and 78-14 over Ridge.  Among Republicans, however, it is the reverse; here Specter loses 74-14 to Toomey and 82-10 to Ridge.

The biggest difference between having Toomey as an opponent as opposed to Ridge – and why Ridge is such a formidable opponent – comes among independents.  They favor Ridge over Specter 47-37, with 11% undecided.

This is why you see so little change in Specter’s voting record to date despite the party switch; lacking a credible Democratic primary opponent, and with strong support among Democratic voters, he’s not very worried about opposition from the Left.  (The favorable/unfavorable split among Democratic voters toward Specter is 77-8!) It’s the moderate voters he’s worried about, particularly if his opponent is Ridge.  Among independents, Specter’s favorability ratio is 51-35 – but Ridge’s is 62-17 (18% undecided). And independents are evenly split, 44-44, regarding whether Specter deserves to be reelected in 2010.  Hence my prediction that Specter would remain firmly entrenched as a swing vote in the Senate.

If I’m Ridge (and Republicans more generally), the following is the part of the Quinnipiac poll that I would find most encouraging:  only 41% of those surveyed thought that a Democratically-controlled filibuster-proof Senate was a good thing – 49% said it was a bad thing (with 11% undecided). And by a margin of 52-44, Pennsylvanians agree with the following statement: “Some people say that losing a Republican in the Senate is dangerous because President Obama and the Democrats will now be able to steamroll over the Republicans. Do you agree or disagree?”  That, in my view, is the issue on which Republicans can win back this Senate seat: the “Specter” of a Democratic supermajority in the U.S. Senate.  Pennsylvanians – and Americans more generally – are uneasy when power is concentrated in a single party. And that’s why Specter’s switch might not be all that beneficial to Democrats – if his party label changes, but his voting patterns do not, then it provides Pennsylvanian voters concerned about a concentration of power with a pretext to elect a “true” Republican Senator in 2010 to limit Democratic power at the national level. From this perspective, Democrats would have been better off if Specter remained a Republican.  The problem, of course, is that Specter likely would not have won as a Republican.

Note that this is one poll, and the election is more than a year away. Ridge has not, to my knowledge, even expressed any interest in running.  More importantly, it did not ask voters about a Ridge-Toomey Republican matchup – it’s not immediately clear to me that Ridge can make it out of the Republican primary if he’s matched up with Toomey.  Nonetheless, the data provides support for my contention that Specter is more worried about his right flank than his left.  And it provides a glimmer of support for those predicting a Republican comeback in the 2010 midterms.