As each side works to tweak and spin public opinion about health care, House Democrats have to realize that it's not about numbers anymore. Instead, as one lobbyist told me in an off-the-cuff conversation the other day, wavering Democrats need to realize that it's "gut check" time. They vote for or against this bill despite the political implications, not because of them.
Is it worse to look incompetent -- pass nothing and get nothing -- or to pass something that the majority of folks in their districts don't support? Forget about the national polls -- many of these incumbents are looking at polling numbers for their party, their president and the issues that are much, much worse than what we see at the national level.
Will any Democrat who took a tough vote on cap-and-trade and/or health care be even remotely open to passing any other thing with the word "comprehensive" in it?
The last time I witnessed something akin to this kind of pressure was in 1993 when my then-boss, Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, D-Pa., flipped her "no" vote on the original House budget bill and went on to become the 218th vote for the Budget Reconciliation Bill. What everyone remembers about that vote was that she went on to lose re-election. What most don't remember was that voting against the bill -- as 41 Democrats did that year -- was no guarantee of success in the '94 midterms, either. Six of those incumbents, including Rep. Jill Long Thompson, D-Ind., David Mann, D-Ohio, and Richard Lehman, D-Calif., voted against both the House and reconciliation bills and lost their seats anyway. Many other no votes, like Reps. Marilyn Lloyd, D-Tenn., Sam Coppersmith, D-Ariz., and Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., retired in 1994. Their seats were captured by a Republican candidate.
Then there was Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., who accompanied "MMM" on the long walk down into the well to cast the 217th vote. He went on to win.
House Democrats face the same dilemma this year. They can vote for a bill that's unpopular in their district and lose their seat in November. Or they can vote against the bill and still end up losing their seat.
Or maybe they win either way.
The most important thing that Democrats can do is get beyond this bill. The economy, not health care, is going to ultimately define this election. It gets defined by health care only if Democrats look as if they can't talk about or do anything else.
For those Democrats who voted for the House bill last fall, voting "no" now isn't going to prevent the GOP from labeling them a "deciding vote" on health care reform. In fact, if health care is unpopular in the fall, everything is fair game, including votes in committee.
For those thinking of moving to "yes," they need an explanation that sounds reasonable and believable. A lot of gobbledygook about policy and procedure isn't going to cut it. What made MMM's vote so toxic was that she publicly declared just hours before the vote that she'd vote against it. Of course, the moral of the MMM story is very different depending on where you sit. In the eyes of many congressional Democrats, that vote cost the party their majority (one that would take them 12 years to get back). It did, however, pave the way to Bill Clinton's success in 1996.
While the major pieces of the legislation won't kick in for years, Democrats will be able to show substantive -- albeit small -- examples of success in the short term, like helping 20-somethings stay on their parents' insurance coverage. Meanwhile, the less popular stuff -- like tax hikes on individuals and/or the "Cadillac tax" -- won't kick in for years. Of course, changes in Medicare are likely to go into effect quickly too, which probably won't play that well with seniors. Voters may ultimately decide that they don't like what Democrats are selling, or that they don't trust Democrats as credible messengers. But, again, they've already taken votes on this bill. It's not like they'll be able to avoid talking about it if it ultimately fails.
Meanwhile, for all the talk that a loss will cripple President Obama's ability to get anything through Congress for the rest of the year, winning will have a similar effect. It's hard to believe that any Democrat who took a tough vote on cap-and-trade and/or health care will be even remotely open to the idea of passing any other thing with the word "comprehensive" in it.
Bottom line: One vote never defines an election, especially a vote taken months before the election. What matters is the mood of the electorate in November. If voters are as angry with Washington and the state of the economy this fall as they are today, they'll take out those frustrations on the governing party. If they are feeling good or at least better about those things by this fall, then Democrats have a chance to hold on to more seats. Voters don't take a scorecard with them into the voting booth.