NPR logo Walking Back The 39 Democratic 'No' Votes On Health Care

Walking Back The 39 Democratic 'No' Votes On Health Care

Many a major policy push has been wrecked at the intersection of politics and government, and over the weekend the Democrats' drive for a new health care system came close to being the latest casualty.

Weighing in at roughly 2,000 pages and $1 trillion, the big bill made it out of the House with just two votes to spare, even though Democrats have almost three-fifths of the seats in the chamber. The vote was close because all but one Republican voted no, and because 39 Democrats joined them in opposition.

Why so many bailing out when their new president made the bill his top agenda item and came to the Hill to beg for it on the day of the vote? Was this not the man who led their ticket to victory just one year earlier?

The answer is that House Democrats, whatever their view of the bill itself, were thinking less about 2008 than about 2010. In the end, most decided the party had its prestige and power riding on the legislation's passage. But nearly 1 in 6 decided the bill was a loser, at least in his own district. You can question these representatives' priorities, but if you take a quick look at their roster you can scarcely question their political judgment.

Districts Voted for McCain

By far the best predictor of Democrats who went against the bill was the presidential vote of their districts in 2008. No fewer than 31 of the 39 who voted "no" late Saturday night had won their current terms a year ago while Sen. John McCain of Arizona was carrying the same voter base as the Republican nominee for president. McCain's margin of victory was greater than 20 percentage points in 10 of these districts (nine in the South and one in Idaho).

These members may consider themselves good Democrats in many respects, but they do not consider their districts to be Democratic territory. Speaker Nancy Pelosi may want to consider handing out special citations to the other 20 Democrats whose districts also voted for McCain but who saw their way clear to support Pelosi and the health care package this weekend.

The next best predictor was region. Of the 39, 25 represent districts below the Mason-Dixon line (extended to reach states added after the original line was drawn) in states that were part of the Confederacy or immediately adjacent. Not surprisingly, almost the same number (24) are members of the Blue Dogs, an organization of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the House, most of whom represent rural districts.

In 1994, when Republicans took majority control in the House for the first time in 40 years, a key to their triumph was the capture of a majority of House seats in the South — a feat that had eluded the party since Reconstruction. The Southern Democrats offer a much smaller target today, but any scenario for dramatic gains in 2010 begins in Dixie.

Republicans see two big advantages on their side for next year. One is the change in the issue mix as the memory of George W. Bush fades and popular dissatisfaction transfers to a new administration and its works. The other is the usual shift in the makeup of the electorate in midterm congressional votes. The electorate for such contests tends to be smaller, older, whiter and more affluent than in presidential voting years.

That is why the Republican campaign operation feels increasingly confident about making big gains in the first midterms. Buoyed by independent voters' willingness to switch from blue to red in Virginia and New Jersey in off-year elections last week, Republicans are hoping to see a very different playing field a year from now from the one they saw a year ago

Narrow Margins of Victory

Naturally enough, another group likely to vote no last weekend was the unhappy club of Democrats who won their current terms without many votes to spare. Of the "no" voters, eight won with margins of 5 points or less (half of these with less than 1 point). All eight are serving their first terms in the House. Will they get a second term? History tells us the members least likely to be re-elected are the freshmen, especially those swept into office in a big presidential year. When the Republicans seized a net of 52 seats in the fall of 1994, the Democratic freshmen elected in 1992 provided much of the fodder.

There were a few exceptions to these rules among the Saturday-night dissenters. Artur Davis from Alabama was the only African-American to oppose the bill. His district gave Obama a victory margin of 48 points, and Davis himself ran unopposed. But in 2010, Davis is giving up his seat to seek the Alabama governorship, and that gives him a larger constituency to think about.

Dennis Kucinich, the representative from the Cleveland area who ran for president in 2008, made clear he thought the Democratic bill that came to the floor was too conservative. He said it left the for-profit health insurance alive and that was wrong. Kucinich prefers single payer and was not about to compromise.

But anomalies aside, the Democrats' vote came down to those who felt their best re-election bet was helping the party move the health care debate further down the road and those who felt it was too great a burden to bear with the 2010 midterm elections just a year away.

In fact, maybe the metaphor of an intersection for politics and government is too weak. It suggests they only occasionally cross paths. Truth is, politics and government don't just go hand in hand, they co-exist in the same space and moment. They are parallel realities that often overlap.

There may be politics that has little to do with governing, but there's no governing to speak of that does not have to do with politics.