Senator Chuck Schumer copped to something Tuesday morning a lot of frustrated Democrats privately believe.
“Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them,” Schumer told reporters at a press event in Washington. “We took their mandate and put all our focus on the wrong problem—health care reform.”
Given the immediate context—a big GOP midterm win, the twilight of Barack Obama’s presidency, the wind up to 2016—people will understandably interpret Schumer’s comments as an attempt to turn the page—to give Hillary Clinton space to run on the promise that she’ll finally get things right, and to implore the liberal intelligentsia to get cracking on a fresh agenda. There is truth to all of that, and it’s reflected in the unequivocal nature of Schumer’s mea culpa.
But there are two important caveats to this story, both of which take a lot of punch out of his words. First, his views in this case aren’t new; and second, they are wrong—both politically and substantively.
It’s forgotten now, but Schumer was always skeptical of the idea that Democrats should cash in all their post-Bush Administration capital on the project of universal health care. He's made it known at various intervals. In 2010, Schumer told the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, “if I were President I might not have [pursued health care reform].” Most Americans had health care and were satisfied with it, he observed, and most of those who didn’t weren’t dependable voters.
In the Senate, Schumer was the Finance Committee’s point man on the public option—a factoid that appears at odds with the idea that he was a reform skeptic. But the purpose of that role was to build as much popular support for the project as possible and keep the liberal coalition united behind it. To make the best out of what he ultimately viewed as a mistake. As it turned out, the public option was probably doomed from the beginning. The administration had traded it away for industry acquiescence.
So he’s actually been entirely consistent. And consistently incorrect.
Substantively, Schumer is understating how positive the Affordable Care Act is to the middle class—even if the law's middle-class benefits, and the security net it places under middle-income people, aren’t always obvious or tangible. Most middle class people already had health insurance, but their risk of losing it, or of experiencing a medical bankruptcy despite their coverage, has essentially disappeared.
But the implication of his views has always been less that health reform doesn't do enough for the middle class, than that Democrats in 2009 could and should have cashed in their political capital on a different project, one that would’ve redounded more immediately and clearly to the middle-class’ benefit. That the problem with Obamacare isn’t Obamacare itself but the opportunity cost it represents.
This is an appealing theory, but it's fantastical. The health care reform process didn’t begin in earnest until after the Recovery Act had already passed, at which point Congress' willingness and ability to pass another big deficit-financed stimulus bill had been maxed out. Maybe Schumer has other ideas in mind—labor rights? Housing policy? A different entitlement?—but he’s never laid out what the achievable alternative was, and how the middle-class and Democratic Party would've been better off as a result.
That’s because there never really was an alternative. Not that Democrats couldn't have done a better job helping the economy recover—I believe they could have—but that the One Big Thing they cashed their capital in on wasn't really up to them. Health care reform was basically pre-packaged, and ready to go because that’s where the consensus was. If after such a decisive victory and once-in-a-generation majorities, Obama announced he would go small on health care reform, or put it off for another time (like he did with immigration reform) the backlash would’ve been severe. It would’ve been his first major elective move as president, and it would’ve splintered his coalition very badly.
I assume Schumer gets this at some level. His imperative is to protect Senate Democrats, and that means helping them forge an identity outside the shadow of the Affordable Care Act. It also means burnishing his bona fides as a prescient strategist. Perhaps “I told you so” goes a long way toward assuring vulnerable Dems that they’ll be in better off in his hands than they were under previous leadership. But that doesn’t mean the alternate history he’s insinuating is actually a tale about what might have been, or that it would have been preferable on the merits.