In a recapitulation of early talk of trying to write a stimulus bill that could secure eighty votes in the United States Senate, we’re now hearing things about Democratic Senators being eager to water down a health care reform bill in hopes of securing seventy votes to pass it. Brendan Nyhan observes that the most oft-stated rationale for the pursuit of this sort of majority is policy stability, bipartisan legislation is said to be more enduring and less subject to massive overall. He also observes that the evidence for this in the political science literature is pretty weak and ambiguous.
Any reasonable president or legislative leader should, I think, make a serious effort to bring as many people into the process who are genuinely interested in reform. And of course it makes sense to go the extra mile in terms of “courting” and so forth to try to get votes from across the aisle. But when you’re talking about a major policy concession like gutting a public option that could save the country hundreds of billions of dollars, then I think you ought to have a very good reason for making the concession. Speculative ideas about stability don’t, it seems to me, make the cut.
And of course it’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that some people who are citing Republican opposition as the reason for opposition to a robust public option may be dissembling to some extent. Bold progressive reform like a robust public option tends to threaten powerful and well-heeled interests. Many legislators—from both parties—are not always eager to threaten those interests. But legislators are also not eager to be seen as caving to powerful interests. If you can do what the special interests want, like drop a public plan, but say that you only did it at the insistence of someone else (Republicans!) then you get to have your cake and eat it, too. You’re not opposed to a public plan, you can assure people, but you’re a pragmatist. Then behind closed doors you can remind the special interests that when the chips were down you saved them.