Which way will the Democrats turn now? Strategically and tactically, it’s obvious. National health care will be their next big issue. They’ll have to avoid the obvious pitfall. (“They’re ba-a-a-ack! More ruthless than ever! Determined to socialize one-seventh of the American economy!”) But two things push them that direction. They have to hold their party together, and they have to try to win an election again. They can’t do one without the other, and they can’t do either without a unifying issue.
The internal dynamic: Democrats have to hold on to their frustrated left wing, who have been gabbing all over the airwaves about how Democrats failed to speak up and speak out on sufficiently progressive issues in the last election. Katrina vanden Heuvel was on NPR’s “The Connection” the other day, spouting a machine-gun stream of new talking points about “the demand for a vital progressive agenda.” Katrina is a Communist, of course, though we are mostly too polite to point that out. But a whole lot of Democrats think that way. And the devotees of The Nation have to be kept in the tent somehow.
If the Democrats don’t appeal to their left wing, they will lose a substantial chunk of those voters, either to Green Party or Naderite independents in local elections, or to Al Sharpton on the national scene. Because Al is going to run, no doubt. He has managed to spoil election results for Democrats twice in New York, first in the mayoral race for New York City, then in the state race for governor. It is his peculiar ambition to do it again on the national stage.
National health care answers the need to hold the party together. It can also be tied, as an attack, to the Republicans’ regular proposals to cut taxes. David Broder phrased it backwards in his November 13 column in the Washington Post, but it means the same thing:
“Taxes are likely to be the dominant economic issue in 2003, given the president’s intention to make those rate reductions permanent. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean says in every speech that he wants the tax cuts rescinded to finance universal health insurance.”
Tactically, individual campaign by individual campaign, Democrats can make things hard on Republicans with an appeal for single-payer national health care. It’s easy to gin up advertisements featuring hard-luck cripples, handicapped children, old people eating dog food, and Christopher Reeve. It’s easy to pull the Hollywood crowd on board as endorsers. It’s easy to talk about skyrocketing costs and increased co-pays and 41 million people uninsured. It’s easy to describe America as “the only modern industrial nation that etc., etc., etc.”
By contrast, on the Republican side, it takes moxie and courage — and will require President Bush — to make the case that health care is a supply-side problem, that no matter where the money comes from, people will pay for it — and they are paying for it now — and that putting government in charge of a single-payer program will stifle the innovation, creativity, and choice that Americans enjoy in health care today. It will take even more guts to propose true market-based reforms to rein in the double-rate-of-inflation cost increases in the health care arena.
Oh, it’s a going issue, no doubt about it. But the Democrats take one enormous risk, which they know: The attacks of September 11 have, as I have written before, put a heroic public face on a voter segment which was formerly anonymous: the Reagan Democrats, or, earlier, “the silent majority.” We now know who those people are: The policeman and firemen of New York City.
Strategically, the Republicans will pit their appeal to that voter audience against the Democrats’ appeal to their left wing. The Democrats will try to hold the working-class swing voter with their traditional call for union solidarity. The Republicans will use patriotism. We have enemies, and those enemies want to kill us: Islamofascists, Saddam Hussein, the Axis of Evil. Bad news for Dems. When it comes down to lives versus the union, President Bush and his team have already shown which way the working class hero votes.
A lot depends on the next two years, on how the war goes, how the economy goes. But the Democrats have been backed against a wall, and they know it. Figure them to employ universal health care as their primary weapon to escape from political oblivion. If it doesn’t work, they’ll be as gone as the Whigs.