CONSCIENCE VOTES

Posted in Election 2010 on March 21st, 2010 by Ed

It tickled me pink to see Nate Silver make a Marjorie Margolies-Mesvinsky reference last week, since the anecdote of her one-term Congressional career is one I love telling. In class, in private, to my rats, anywhere and everywhere.

In 1992 "3M" (as fellow legislators called her to avoid excessive entanglement with her awkward name) won a total fluke victory over GOP incumbent Jon Fox in PA-13. Republicans had held the seat since Woodrow Wilson was President – 1916. Marjorie won narrowly and was not expected to last long, especially given that Clinton would not be on the ballot to help in 1994. In 1993 Clinton needed one more "yes" vote for his first budget proposal, one that was met with unanimous and strenuous opposition from Republicans. Marjorie signed her own political death certificate by agreeing to vote for it after days of full court press by the White House. As she recorded her vote in the House, Republicans stood and sang "Bye Bye, Marjorie!" She was defeated in 1994 and left public life.

Obama, of course, spent most of the weekend lobbying nervous House Democrats to vote for health care reform. He might have had an easier time with it had he read up on 3M and made a simple, forceful argument: a lot of you are going to lose in 2010. Irrespective of the HCR vote. 2008 was an anomalously strong year for the Democrats in Congress and let's be frank – a lot of these wins in conservative, historically Republican districts were complete flukes. It was a combination of luck, circumstances, and frustration with the ineptness of the GOP. But the Democrats, from the grassroots up to the White House, are acting as though these seats can be defended. Most of them can't.

Walt Minnick (Idaho 1) is a freshman and a firm No on HCR. He serves the most Republican district in the nation to be represented by a Democrat. He won by 0.6% of the vote in 2008 with Obama on the ballot bringing out more Democrats. I'd say Mr. Minnick has about a snowball's chance in hell of winning in 2010. Everything about him screams "Here lies one whose name was writ in water." A strong president would call him into the Oval Office, make small talk for a few minutes, and say, "Look, Walt. You're probably not going to be around for much longer. Why not do one really good thing before you go? One thing you'll be proud of, a historic piece of legislation you'll be able to say you made possible?"

The idea of voting one's conscience is very heavily discounted in political science. The evidence simply does not support it, instead pointing to constituent preferences and the party leadership as the effective constraints on Congressional voting behavior. However, this bill is big enough, and there are enough Democrats who are lucky just to be there, to justify appeals to conscience by the President. It only needs to work with a few people on a close vote. And deep in their hearts I believe a lot of these vulnerable House Democrats know their time is short. They know it as surely as they know that HCR, once passed, will join Social Security and Medicare as the third rail of American politics. After all, the unpopularity of the legislation obscures the fact that everything in the bill is in fact quite popular.

Two other things related to the vote:

1. NOW et al are flipping out about the executive order "Stupak compromise" on Federally-funded abortions. I think it's symbolic and essentially irrelevant. It reinforces the status quo of the Hyde Amendment and there was not one word in the bill suggesting that Federal money was going to be used to provide abortions anyway. Basically, if it made Bart Stupak and a couple other pro-life Democrats happy to have the President pass an EO saying "This bill which provides no Federal funds for abortions will not provide Federal funds for abortions" then so be it.

2. It was good to see the opposition from the left collapse – Kucinich and the like. I agree with them in that I think the bill is a massive handout to insurance companies and it pales in comparison to a single-payer system or a public insurance option. I am also old enough to realize that right now, with this President and this political landscape, this is about as good as it's going to get. When you need a new car and you realize you can't afford the Ferrari you really want, do you buy a car you can afford or say "Screw it, I'll just walk"? No, you take what you can get right now, let the policy establish a foothold, and add to it in increments over time. More on that tomorrow.

(postscript: Margolies-Mezvinsky's son Marc is now engaged to Chelsea Clinton. So whoever flips to vote with Obama on this one might end up with one of the Obama girls as a daughter-in-law)