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Elections

What If Politicians Actually Tried Solving Problems

If we only wait until something is politically popular, we'll all be dead.

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On Nov. 25, 2014, three weeks after the Democrats lost their Senate majority and thus handed both chambers of Congress to the GOP, Chuck Schumer, then the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, gave a speech at the National Press Club in which he excoriated his party for its passage of the Affordable Care Act. Obamacare, Schumer said, had been a grave political mistake. From the speech (emphasis mine):

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. Now the plight of uninsured Americans and the hardships caused by unfair insurance company practices certainly needed to be addressed, but it was not the change we were hired to make.

This makes sense, considering 85% of all Americans got their health care from either the government, Medicare, Medicaid, or their employer. And if health care costs were going up, it really did not affect them. The Affordable Care Act was aimed at the 36 million Americans who were not covered. It has been reported that only a third of the uninsured are even registered to vote. In 2010 only about 40% of those registered voted. So even if the uninsured kept with the rate, which they likely did not, we would still only be talking about only 5% of the electorate.

To aim a huge change in mandate at such a small percentage of the electorate made no political sense. So when Democrats focused on health care, the average middle-class person thought the Democrats are not paying enough attention to me. Again, our health care system was riddled with unfairness and inefficiency. It was a problem desperately in need of fixing. The changes that were made are and will continue to be positive changes, but we would have been better able to address it if Democrats had first proposed and passed bold programs aimed at a broader swath of the middle class.

Schumer received a good deal of blowback for saying this, but he was hardly alone in identifying Obamacare as a political albatross. From a Politico article in March of 2014 (emphasis mine):

Key Democratic strategists, who spoke anonymously to discuss party strategy, were blunt about Obamacare’s problems, especially from the political angle. They said Alex Sink’s loss in the Florida special election was a “nightmare.” Sink campaigned on Obamacare, and couldn’t beat the deeply flawed Republican David Jolly. Democrats know they can’t ignore Obamacare — they need to find a successful way to talk about it. […]

A Democratic strategist involved in House races said, “We’re going to test the hell out of this. We’re really hurting from Obamacare.”

Six years later, Obamacare is no longer viewed by Democrats as political kryptonite. Democrats broadly see it as one of their most iconic pieces of social reform ever. Schumer, far from running away from the law, has made it the centerpiece of his party’s efforts to recapture the Senate.

I would imagine that if you asked Schumer today to explain his rather callous and nihilistic dismissal of the tens of millions of people without insurance as a group it made “no political sense” to help, he would have to pedal quickly in the other direction.

I mention all of this because the 2014 version of Schumer reminds me so much of some of the current discourse surrounding the Democrats’ less-than-stellar performance in the 2020 elections.

These days, it’s not Obamacare dragging Democrats down. To hear some people tell it, the current problem is the movement to defund the police and the specter of socialism. Over and over again, we’re told that Republicans are using these things as cudgels against the party, and they’re winning, and if Democrats ever want to see true power again, they’d better find a way to denounce the defund people and the socialists in a way that the electorate believes.

My colleague Paul Blest responded to the substance of these claims very well here, so I won’t really go into that again. I’m actually quite willing to accept that calls to defund the police are out of the mainstream, because police have been around forever and “defund the police” has been around in the broad popular imagination for about three seconds. It’s naturally a political risk of some kind to go up against the police.

But Schumer’s reaction to Obamacare in 2014 and the outrage over calls to defund the police in 2020 both come from the same place. Just like that small portion of the electorate whom Schumer was so incensed about prioritizing, people who are angry because the police are killing and terrorizing them and eating up a wild portion of their municipal budgets, are, fundamentally, a political embarrassment to be shoved under the rug, not a constituency whose issues need to be addressed.

And sure, fine, politics is about priorities. But it is clearly the case that all of the attempts at moderate “reform” of the police and the criminal justice system in America have been deeply ineffective. Police are still killing Black people in the streets. The jails are still full and heaving. The problems have not gone anywhere.

So who is to blame for Democrats being hurt by calls to defund the police, if that’s what’s been happening? Is it the activists who are identifying a self-evident problem and calling for a legitimate solution to fix it, or is it the political class that has done so little to address the problem? The failure to do this—to focus instead on supposedly politically palatable solutions—didn’t quell anyone’s anger. It made people feel more incensed and betrayed. Maybe if politicians had moved more boldly on criminal justice, there wouldn’t be so much backlash in the streets. Maybe, while we’re at it, if healthcare in this country wasn’t so terrible, Medicare for All wouldn’t be so salient in our politics. Is its prominence the fault of socialists who are trying to doom Democrats, or because Democrats didn’t solve the issue when they had a chance?

Let’s look again at Obamacare. Obamacare sucks! It’s a half-measure at best when it comes to solving healthcare, and certainly far less radical than defunding the police. But it was a clear political risk for the Obama administration to take at the time. The 2014-era Schumer point of view was that it was a big mistake to try to help people without healthcare, because it came with a high political cost. They should have focused on the popular stuff instead of trying to help people without healthcare!

But if you only focus on the “popular” stuff, when, exactly, are the things that aren’t so popular supposed to change? When is the right moment to, y’know, do something about the many deep-seated problems in this country? I am not usually one to laud Barack Obama for much, but if he had listened to the Chuck Schumers of his day, not even Obamacare would have ever come into existence. As activist Bree Newsome pointed out last week, if the civil rights movement had proceeded on the basis of what opinion polls said was popular, not much would have been achieved. Would anyone today say that the civil rights movement wasn’t worth the political risk?

This kind of political nihilism is depressing as hell, but it’s also deeply disrespectful of the American public, and it overlooks the natural arc of history. It presumes that what is unpopular now will always be unpopular, and that the job of politics is not to attempt to move public opinion in any direction, but rather to eternally accede to its most conservative elements for fear that doing anything more will create a backlash.

Sometimes you’re going to create a backlash. Sometimes people will be mad at you. Sometimes you will take the hit. But then, guess what? You’ve actually done something—and, like Obamacare, that something then has a chance to embed itself in the fabric of the country, to turn from an albatross into an asset. I’m not saying that defunding the police or socialism are directly on track to do that. There’s a ton of political work to be done. But the notion that you must wait forever until, magically, people come around to a particular policy agenda is ludicrous—and, in the end, you become Chuck Schumer in 2014, lamenting the fact that your party had the nerve to turn its attention to the people who need it most .