Never one to shun the spotlight, New York Sen. Charles Schumer made himself the center of attention last week by delivering a scathing critique of recent Democratic Party political strategy, including his blunt view that it was disastrous to push for healthcare reform early in President Obama’s first term.
“It wasn’t the change we were hired to make,” Schumer said in a 50-minute speech at the National Press Club. “Americans were crying out for an end to the recession, for better wages and more jobs, not for changes in their health care.”
Universal health coverage was not of interest to the middle class, the Democrats’ core constituency, Schumer argued, but only to “a small percentage of the electorate,” so “it made no political sense.” And Democrats have been paying the price ever since they lost control of the House in 2010.
Schumer is taking heavy flak from fellow Democrats, who accuse him of everything from hypocrisy to disloyalty. Schumer’s critics have a point, given that he is the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, responsible for the party’s political messaging for much of the past six years, and that his speech is a political gift for Republicans.
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Not altogether unfairly, these critics reproach him for implying that Democrats should have put political self-interest ahead of helping the uninsured.
For all that, Schumer deserves partial credit for attempting a candid assessment of his party’s post-election predicament when other Democratic leaders still seem to be in denial about the 2014 debacle. As the senator noted, American capitalism is delivering stagnant earnings and diminished economic prospects for middle-income Americans. In theory, at least, this should be a time of electoral triumph for the party of government.
Yet to call Obamacare a political negative for Democrats is merely to state the obvious, even if that admission deviates from party orthodoxy.
Health reform may be working better lately, but polls still show that it is broadly unpopular, despite half a decade of assurances from supporters that the public would eventually warm to it.
The real questions are: Why? And, what, if anything, can Democrats do about it?
Schumer’s answer to the first is incomplete: The problem isn’t simply that the uninsured are a minority of the electorate; it’s also that Americans are less inclined to regard universal coverage as a federal responsibility than they used to be.
This trend was evident as of the time Obama took office, and accelerated after the passage of Obamacare, according to the Gallup Poll, which shows that only 42 percent of the public considers insuring everyone the government’s job today — down from 69 percent in 2007.
Medicare remains wildly popular, but polls suggest this is due to the perception, partially rooted in the reality of regular payroll deductions, that the elderly are entitled to their coverage because they paid for it. “When they say, ‘Keep the government out of Medicare,' they mean, ‘I earned it and I paid into it,' “ says Robert J. Blendon, an expert on public opinion at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Many Americans regarded Obamacare, by contrast, as a kind of unearned benefit for which the middle class would ultimately have to foot the bill, at a time when they have enough financial headaches already.
Which brings us to Schumer’s prescription for the Democrats’ political ills, namely, that the party should “embrace” active government more firmly than ever – but make its benefits clearer, both in word and deed, to the middle class.
He suggested that the party focus on policies that are “simply and easily explained,” a wise, if belated, acknowledgment that the health-care law’s very complexity made it both harder to implement and easier, for Republicans, to attack.
Alas for Schumer, 59 percent of Americans express either “not very much” trust in the federal government to handle domestic problems, or “none at all,” according to Gallup. A second difficulty is that Schumer himself found it hard to list specific policies. He noted that a higher minimum wage is popular, even in red states, but it’s not exactly a benefit to the middle class.
Schumer depicted U.S. politics since 1932 as a long struggle between pro-government and anti-government forces – which the “Great Recession” of 2008-2009 may have shifted decisively in favor of those who favor more active government, if Democrats are smart enough to take advantage of it.
Another interpretation is that Democrats have periodically won public favor by promising to wield federal power to address long-neglected social and political ills, then lost it again when big-government solutions proved unsatisfactory. Parardoxically, the party of government struggles to gain politically from actually being in government.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.
© 2014, The Washington Post