Why Last Night Means Nothing for Health Care Reform

Prior to people going to vote yesterday, the national media narrative was focused on the New Jersey and Virginia governors races, as well as the race in New York’s 23rd Congressional district as loci for an assessment of the public’s support of President Obama. This was always absurd, as gubernatorial races are about local issues (traffic congestion dominated in VA and local taxes in NJ). Additionally, the NY-23 is one of the most long-standing Republican held districts in the Northeast; no Democrat had ever won there before last night. In any event, the popular push in the press was, not surprisingly, that only Democratic losses were possible and meaningful. Indeed, this morning pundits are already telling us that only the Democratic losses in Virginia and New Jersey mean anything.

Reading tea leaves for national meaning on an election day that saw the Republicans take two governor’s mansions, Democrats take two House seats,  one win (Washington) and one loss (Maine) for marriage equality, and two defeats of TABOR ballot initiatives (Maine and Washington). Instead, I’m interested in how these results will impact legislative debate in Congress, primarily on health care reform.

Going into yesterday, there was already discussion by Blue Dog Jason Altmire that Democratic electoral losses would strengthen conservative Democrats and slow the pace of reform, something that he bizarrely thinks is a good thing. Similarly, the Glenn Beck Teabagger set, including leading voices like Erick Erickson of RedState.com, predicted that conservative candidate Doug Hoffman’s expected win in NY-23 would lead to an emboldened Republican base and greater opposition to change.

On the other side of the aisle, there were a good number of savvy progressives who pointed out that since the gubernatorial races didn’t have anything to do with the Obama administration, they shouldn’t be seen as informative of the course for reform. Additionally, the results of a district Democrats have no tradition of being competitive in wouldn’t be informative, either.

But here’s the thing – last night’s election was really very similar to the August congressional recess. During the recess there were rabid, disruptive protests by teabaggers that received widespread attention. There were also even larger numbers of town halls filled by supporters of health care reform, calling on Congress to get the job done. As a result, elected officials returned to Washington after the August recess…but no one had changed their minds. Those who opposed reform looked at the angry teabaggers and cited their actions as evidence that they are right to oppose reform. And those who support health care reform listened to the pleas from their constituents and felt greater resolve in their drive for change.

Expect the same thing from Tuesday’s election results. Erickson is trumpeting even the NY-23rd loss as a win for conservatives and for opposing health care reform.  But Democrats gained two House seats, both votes for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker and likely both votes for whatever health care reform legislation Pelosi puts forward. Additionally Doug Hoffman, the most rapid advocate of “No” on a ballot yesterday, was defeated. Expect liberal members of Congress to see the federal results as support for the work they are doing.

All of that adds up, in my view, to the election having no meaningful impact on the course of health care reform legislation. Positions will be hardened on both sides, but don’t expect anyone to move an inch. As far as the prognosticators go, expect most of them to miss this point in an effort to create a story around a non-existent rebuke of Obama. Plus ça change

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