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Is Schumer right? A top Democrat calls early focus on Obamacare a mistake

Sen. Chuck Schumer says that his party 'blew the opportunity' – and, later, lost the Senate – when they focused on health-care reform, instead of jobs and helping the middle class.

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    US Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) casts his vote at a polling station in the Brooklyn borough of New York November 4, 2014.
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The No. 3 Democrat in the Senate says that his party made a mistake five years ago when it turned its attention away from taking steps to continue stimulating the economy and toward the still-controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA):

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, slammed his party Tuesday for pursuing health-care reform in 2009 and 2010, arguing that Democrats hurt themselves politically by not focusing instead on policies aimed at helping a “broader swath” of middle-class Americans.

“After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus. But unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem – health-care reform.”

Schumer, who voted for the health-care law and has championed it, suggested that he voiced similar concerns to colleagues back when the law was being crafted but was overruled by others who saw the moment as the best possible chance to reshape the nation’s health-care system.

“We should have done it. We just shouldn’t have done it first,” he said of what is considered by many Democrats to be President Obama’s signature accomplishment.

Schumer made his remarks during a speech at the National Press Club that served as a sharp critique of his party in the wake of a disastrous midterm election in which Republicans swept into the Senate majority and padded their House advantage.

Bloomberg’s Kathleen Hunter has further details about Schumer’s comments:

Nov. 25 (Bloomberg) – Democrats made a mistake by passing President Barack Obama’s health-care law in 2010 instead of first focusing more directly on helping the middle class, third-ranking U.S. Senate Democrat Charles Schumer said today.

“Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them” in electing Obama and a Democratic Congress in 2008 amid a recession, Schumer of New York said in a speech in Washington. “We took their mandate and put all our focus on the wrong problem – health care reform.”

Schumer said Democrats should have addressed issues aiding the middle class to build confidence among voters before turning to revamping the health-care system. He said he opposed the timing of the health-care vote and was overruled by other party members.

“The plight of uninsured Americans and the hardships created by unfair insurance company practices certainly needed to be addressed,” the senator said. “But it wasn’t the change we were hired to make” in the 2008 election.

Schumer’s comments represent an unusual public intra-party criticism of the way Obama’s signature legislative achievement was enacted. The senator spoke at the National Press Club to analyze the results of this month’s election, when Republicans took control of the Senate and increased their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Schumer’s comments are not new ones. I recall similar comments being made as the House and Senate were moving forward on what eventually became the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010 from political observers and pundits, many of whom noted, correctly, that health-care reform was not a significant part of President Obama’s campaign for the White House either during the Democratic primary fight with Hillary Clinton or the General Election campaign against John McCain. To some degree, of course, this criticism came from pundits on the left who recalled the bitter fight that President Clinton faced more than 20 years earlier when he attempted to push a health-care reform package through a Democratic-controlled Congress only to see the package fail spectacularly and, eventually, contribute to the loss of Democratic control of both houses of Congress in 1994 for the first time since the 1950s. As I can best recall, none of those pundits were saying that concentrating on health care would lead to the Democrats losing control of Congress, but they were arguing, as Schumer seems to here, that the party should be concentrating its agenda on the things that President Obama ran on for office, such as strengthening the middle class and doing more to turn the economy around from the Great Recession.

In retrospect, there does seem to be a certain amount of appeal to Schumer’s Monday morning quarterbacking here, since the consequences of what actually happened for both the country and the Democratic Party seem to be rather clear. Even assuming, for the sake of argument, the truth of the arguments that the advocates of the ACA made at the time, and continue to make today, it seems undeniable that concentrating on that legislation did hurt Democrats in the short term. Most prominently, of course, it hurt them by giving Republican opponents something to focus upon and rally around that ended up resonating with a significant segment of the public. Soon after Congress started turning to the issue in 2009, opposition to “Obamacare,” as it soon came to be called, became a unifying force for the tea party movement and allowed it to recruit support from groups such as the elderly who were concerned, right or wrongly, with what a new law would do to their Medicare coverage. It also played into the general anti-big government argument that the tea party had started making when it first emerged during the debate over the 2009 economic stimulus package. From the beginning, polling showed that the public was wary at best, if not strongly opposed to what was being discussed in Congress when it came to health-care reform. By the time the 2010 midterms came around, the unpopularity of the ACA was such that it clearly had become a rallying cry for voters inclined to vote Republican and no doubt helped motivate them to get to the polls.

At the same time that Congress focused on the ACA, of course, the economy continued to be an albatross. While the recession had officially ended by early 2009 and the nation entered a period of economic growth that continues today, the growth in the early stages of the recovery was anemic at best and, in many quarters of the economy, essentially nonexistent. The jobs market, most importantly, languished for 2009 and 2010 at levels that looked like they would obviously be a problem for Democrats when the election time came around. By that point in November 2010, exit polls showed that the economy and jobs were overwhelmingly the most important issues on the minds of voters, and the fact that the election resulted in huge Republican pickups in both the House and the Senate really should not come as a surprise. By then, of course, it was too late for Democrats to focus much attention on the economy even before they had lost the election, because so much political capital had been expended pushing the health-care law across the finish line by the skin of its teeth.

Looking at these events through this lens, Schumer’s argument makes sense, especially if one posits that had Democrats spent more time concentrating on the economy, they would have been able to save control of Congress in 2010. The problem, though, is that the reality of 2009 and 2010 doesn’t really support his thesis. As Richard Mayhew notes, it seems unlikely, to say the least, that even President Obama and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress would have had trouble getting another, or larger, stimulus package through Congress than what passed in the early months of his administration. The bill, you may recall, was criticized as it was for being too large at $800 billion, and the suggestion of pundits like Paul Krugman that the president should have been pushing for something in the range of $2 trillion demonstrated a high degree of naivete about the reality of what it takes to get big pieces of legislation through Congress. Additionally, even if such a package had passed Congress, it’s not at all clear that it would have had any significant impact on the economy going forward, especially since there’s little actual evidence that the stimulus package that did pass had anything more than a passing impact on the economy. In that case, the effort necessary to pass something bigger might have been as much for naught as the ACA may turn out to be in the end. There were other measures, perhaps, that could have been explored, such as tax reform at the individual and corporate level, but their impact on the economy would take time to manifest and likely would not have saved Democrats in 2010 at all. Schumer is clearly trying to engage in some kind of five-year-old “I told you so” game here, but, in the end, the evidence just doesn’t support his argument.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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