How the Dem Base Might Explode

Senate Majority Leader of Harry Reid, D-Nev., center, accompanied by Senate Democrats, speaks during a health care news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 23, 2009. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Since House Democrats remain fairly seized with terror at the political ramifications of passing health care reform, it's worth stepping back and thinking clearly about the Democrats' predicament. The November elections look bad for three basic reasons.

First, the Republican base is extremely energized, for reasons that were probably inevitable due to Democrats running all three branches of government, in an era when Republicans have very effective communication media for whipping up their base.

Second, independents are highly skeptical, which was also mostly inevitable when the party took power just after the economy began a free-fall.

The third problem, which has received little attention, is the demoralized Democratic base. The elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts featured terrible turnout by core Democrats, who perceive the Congress they elected as ineffectual. The best chance to reverse that perception would be to pass health care reform, which could help persuade the significant chunk of Americans who think the bills don't go far enough that the party has made significant progress on the issue. It would also help to pivot to issues like financial regulation where Democrats are fighting unpopular interests rather than cutting deals with them.

But Democrats have not given sufficient attention to the potential downside of failing to enact health care reform. Sam Stein reports:

"Everyone, meanwhile, is gradually moving to the recognition that the worst thing the Democratic Party could do, would be nothing at all. As Jeff Liszt, a Democratic pollster at the firm Anzalone Liszt Research, told a conference organized by Families USA on Friday: "I really see it as existential threat for Democrats if they fail to get health reform through."

This is a big, big deal. If the Democrats had decided not to take on this issue, they may have been spared some backlash. But now that they have passed a comprehensive bill in each chamber of Congress, to let reform die because the two Democratic-controlled bodies couldn't work out their differences would be an act of criminal neglect. The overwhelming sentiment among Democrats, I predict, would go from the current ennui to an active desire to punish Congressional incumbents. I suspect that's what Liszt means by "existential threat."

I want to be clear about this. There is a perennial tendency by activists in both parties to bluster about retribution if the party fails to heed the maximal demands of the base. Elected officials almost always do well to ignore it. In this case it's deadly serious. I don't think anybody in Washington has begun to consider the scale of the blowback from the base Democrats will face if they punt from the opponent's one yard line.

By Jonathan Chait:
Reprinted with permission from The New Republic.
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