I’ve previously argued that the Senate health care bill is much better than none. I agree with Jonathan Rauch about this – he makes the case especially well – and with Paul Krugman. But is this a sufficient reason to say that the House should pass the Senate bill rather let the matter drop? No. These are separate questions.
Even if I am right that the Senate bill is better than nothing, there are two complications. One concerns political strategy, the other democratic legitimacy.
The Senate bill is not popular. Most voters want Congress to walk away and start over. If Democrats say we will pass this bill despite hearing that message, they are asking for a drubbing in November – an outcome that would put the rest of the party’s agenda in jeopardy. If I were a Democrat, I might conscientiously prefer retaining control of the House to passing the Senate bill. I might think that, on balance, this was the best outcome for the country.
That is the strategic issue: how much harm does the party inflict on itself by pressing on? But suppose for the sake of argument that passing an unpopular healthcare reform will not hurt, and might even help, the Democrats’ prospects in November, as some seem to believe. Would it be right, in any event, to pass a bill that most Americans oppose? It would help to be sure that the country had failed to understand the proposal. (Whose fault would that be, by the way?) But this seems a bit of a stretch, even though there is a lot of confusion about what the measure would do. It is an even bigger stretch, I think, to call failing to pass an unpopular bill a “betrayal of trust”, as Krugman does. Whose trust?
If I were a Congressman, certain this bill was better than nothing, and the voters in my district had decided they did not want it, I ought to think hard before shoving it down their throats, even if I were confident they would come to love me for it later.
It would not be enough to feel that the bill was merely better than nothing. I’d want to feel it was so much better than nothing – and so important – that I was right to ignore the people I am supposed to be representing, the people I’d failed to convince of the merits of my case. I’d expect to lose the next election and would have no complaints.
This is a high bar. In the end, I’d vote for the Senate bill – but this answer is not obvious, even if the bill is as good as I think. There are respectable reasons (as well as sleazy ones) for admitting defeat.