Now it’s time for “Driving lessons with Dana Milbank.” Let’s go to the tape.
Driver-trainee: “There’s a brick wall ahead. I’ll stop.”
Trainer-Milbank: “No! Speed up. Faster, faster!”
Driver-trainee: “Really? If I do, I’ll hit the wall. That can’t be what the owner of this car would want. In fact, he told me to make sure I don’t destroy it.”
Trainer-Milbank: “Well, having driven this far, you have to continue. That’s exactly what the owner wants, no matter what he says.” Sadly the tape ends here, with a crash.
In real life, Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post, not a driving instructor. He dispenses advice to politicians, not those operating heavy machinery. That’s probably for the best.
Here’s some of his choicest recent advice to liberals in congress. He was writing before Scott Brown pulled off the political upset of the century in Massachusetts. But Milbank didn’t think the outcome of that race really mattered, anyway: “Democrats have an unhappy choice: They can pass health-care reform and have a losing year, or they can shelve health-care reform and have a disastrous year. Voters may not like the health-care bill, but they’ll punish the majority party even more for dithering and drifting without accomplishing anything.”
This advice boils down to: “Hurry up and pass an unpopular bill, or you’ll be punished at the polls.” It hinges on whether voters are more likely to punish lawmakers for passing a bill the voters oppose, or for failing to pass a bill the voters oppose. The answer seems obvious, but Milbank has drawn the opposite conclusion.
And how do we know the health care plan is unpopular? Look at opinion polls. Rasmussen recently found that 56 percent of likely voters oppose Obamacare. Only 38 percent support it. Or consider the Massachusetts election. Brown made opposition to Obama’s health reform his signature issue, and won easily in a heavily Democratic state.
Moreover, he picked up the seat held by Sen. Ted Kennedy, the man liberals credit with driving health care reform. “There is really only one author of this bill,” Sen. Tom Harkin said in December. “Sen. Ted Kennedy, it’s his bill.” So it’s difficult to see the vote as anything other than a slap in the face for the president’s party and its signature issue.
But liberals are trying. “Once this thing is passed and signed, then suddenly The New York Times and other newspapers are going to have a big article saying what does this mean for you, and people will take a look at it and say, ‘You know what, this is a lot better deal than I thought’,” Obama explained in a recent interview with, of course, The New York Times. Right. If only the Times would give Obama more favorable coverage, his bill would be popular.
Milbank is far from alone in his assessment, of course. “In both the House and Senate, Democrats have already voted for Obamacare, which means that they’ll be in the crosshairs of those voters no matter what. At least by passing something they will give their own party activists a reason to turn out,” Peter Beinert writes in the Daily Beast. “Besides,” he adds, “when it comes to Obama’s health-care reform effort, the will of the people isn’t entirely clear.”
No? Then by all means, please do pass health insurance “reform” and run on it. We’ll see what the “will of the people” looks like in November.
The interesting fact is that congressional liberals have put themselves in a strange, perhaps unique, position. Their signature issue today is unpopular with roughly two-thirds of Americans, and opposition is only growing. That’s not how electorial politics is supposed to work.
Normally, parties stake out popular positions on issues. Even if they have no intention of following through on their promises, they vow to cut taxes, or reduce federal spending, or whatever. When a party takes a stand on a controversial issue – say, abortion rights -- it does so specifically because a large number of people believe passionately in that issue. As Brown showed, on health care, all the passion on this issue is against the bill.
“We are on the precipice of achievement that’s eluded Congresses, presidents for generations -- an achievement that will touch the lives of nearly every American,” Obama announced last month.
His party must decide soon whether to drive off that precipice, or back up and start over.