Like health care reform all over again

Published October 7, 2021

By Thomas Mills

Watching Democrats fight over Joe Biden’s agenda gives me flashbacks to the 2009-10 debate over health care reform. Back then, it seemed to be the first time we really watched the sausage being made in real time. Cable coverage was nonstop and new social media programs like Facebook and Twitter offered up instant hot takes that went viral. And it was ugly. 

Back then, Barack Obama naively dreamed of building a bipartisan coalition to move legislation forward despite overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. He held out offers to moderate Republicans who rejected him and stuck with Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist make-them-fail philosophy. In addition, a handful of conservative Democrats led by former Senator Max Baucus refused to support a public option, leading to infighting that turned off most Americans and gave Republicans plenty of political fodder. 

Like Biden’s domestic agenda today, people approved of the components in the health care reform bill, but disliked the bill itself. The process was such a turnoff and the GOP messaging was so successful, that the Affordable Care Act led to the debacle of 2010, giving the GOP the redistricting pen and control of a majority of state legislatures for most of the decade. Ironically, once the law took effect in 2014, it became increasingly popular, expanding access to care and controlling costs. Today, it has majority support. 

 Obama ran on health care reform, but before he could address his domestic agenda, he had to clean up the mess of the Great Recession. He burned a lot of political capital getting support to businesses and families through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Despite trying to build bipartisan support, not a single Republican voted for it. And despite pulling the country from the brink of a major depression, the left flank of the Democratic Party never like it, either, criticizing it for being too small and not bold enough. In the end, neither Obama nor the Democrats in Congress got any credit for getting the country out of the recession.

Similarly, Biden ran on an ambitious agenda but had to first address the pandemic. His roll out of the vaccine effort was impressive, but vaccine hesitancy, particularly on the right, kept the pandemic alive. Instead being able to pivot to his legislative agenda, he’s had to address the surge this summer. What looked like early success and unity have turned into squabbling.

 And this time, with a much narrower majority, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are playing the roles of Max Baucus and the hesitant Democrats who slowed the pace of passing Obamacare. Biden got his bipartisan support for the infrastructure bill, but the legislative process of passing the budget is hampered by party infighting again. And like the health care reform debate, the bickering is causing approval of Democrats to sink. 

The public doesn’t like watching Congress make laws. They just want action. The GOP can pass an unpopular tax cut, but the unity of their caucus protects them from dragging out the process. In contrast, both the left and the right are complaining about Biden’s budget bill and have been for months. With a short attention span and an aversion details, the public is over the debate. They assume that if both Republicans and Democrats are complaining, it must be bad. Since Democrats control the White House and Congress, they must not be doing a good job. 

Democrats have always had a much bigger tent than Republicans. They are a collection of groups and people with differing priorities, held together in a loose coalition that spans from the center right to the far left with multiple single-issue types willing to scream if they feel they are getting shorted. Passing legislation with that alliance is always loud and messy.

I suspect that Democrats will eventually raise the debt ceiling, pass the infrastructure bill, and pass a budget of about $2 trillion. Those legislative accomplishments would be huge, especially in our currently dysfunctional system. Instead of celebrating, though, everyone will be complaining. The right will call it socialism and the left will call it stingy. And Democrats will pay a huge price at the ballot box in 2022. Given the makeup of the modern GOP,  the loss may prove more consequential than 2010.