A Further Perspective

The High Costs of a Longshot

And they're all being paid by the losers.

By 1.28.10

Increasingly, a single Senate race seems to have sunk health care reform. Repercussions are still reverberating from the Massachusetts Senate special election. While hardly yet definitive, none have been positive. If indeed derailed, the political costs will be staggering to reform's proponents…and they will take longer to tally than the year already devoted to health care reform thus far 

Massachusetts' recent Senate special election produced one of the greatest upsets in modern American politics. Viewed from every angle, the outcome is incredible. 

Massachusetts is the bluest of blue states. The election was to replace Washington's leading liberal and a member of the state and nation's most storied Democratic family. The Republicans had not held a Senate seat there in almost 40 years. Yet, the Republican, Scott Brown won, and won not only as a Republican, but as a conservative Republican. 

We can quantify Brown's challenge as well. Few states rang up a higher Democratic percentage in the 2008 presidential race. Obama won Massachusetts with 62 percent of the vote (versus just 53 percent nationwide), while McCain received just 36 percent. Just over a year later, Brown won with 52 percent of the vote and almost an 110,000 vote margin

As big as the upset was, its implications are far larger. None are as big as they are for the nearly year-old health care reform debate. A health care reform bill appeared to be just days away from completion. Versions had already been passed by both bodies of Congress. At most two more votes -- and potentially as few as one vote (had the House simply passed the bill approved by the Senate just before Christmas) -- by each body could have sent a final bill to the president. 

Despite many attempts, no proposal had ever gone so far through the legislative process. The Administration had staked everything on it and other issues were pushed aside to make way for it. 

If the effort were now to be effectively over, the policy upset will outstrip the political one. The costs of this will take years to tally but a quick appraisal can be done now. First, there are the opportunity costs -- the foregone chances to pass other agenda items that were lost in health care's eclipse. 

Second are the political costs. The largest congressional majorities in decades -- including the magic 60-vote filibuster-proof threshold in the Senate -- were devoted to the effort. Difficult votes were cast -- votes that will be opposition campaign fodder in coming elections. 

Third are the public relations costs. The public's view of the proposal, and its proposers, eroded greatly in less than a year. 

Fourth is interest groups' goodwill. Just as Congress heavily invested itself, so also did key allies -- in their effort, their membership, and their money.

All of these will be hard, if not impossible, to regain. And the top two costs can never be reclaimed. 

The time lost will never come again for this Administration. Not only a year gone, but the year that is usually an Administration's most productive. Even if an Administration has two terms, its first year usually carries the greatest momentum. 

Less tangible, but no less real, is the willingness to be led. Whether it is Congress, groups, or voters, most come to a task in anticipation of success -- not just in support of a cause. Nothing cools ardor like failure. As victory's prospects fade, so too do the motivated. Ask any politician how many will vote for a sure loser. Ask the media why they refuse to predict a winner before polls close. The prospect of defeat depresses turnout -- because it depresses the supporters themselves. 

Now the prospect looms that instead of a bellwether for future success, health care will lead a larger agenda in the opposite direction. This was brought about not just by the outcome, but by the content of a single election. 

If the seat had been simply filled by the appointment of a Republican, the outcome on Senate numbers would have been no different. But the implications would have been vastly so. The demonstrable content, the quantifiable electoral swing, the palpable motivation of the electorate -- all would not have surfaced.

While the health care debate is still not yet dead, it appears that a single shot from the longest of long-shots may have fatally found its mark.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.