As a conservative I would love to believe the downfall of Obamacare signifies America is turning into a permanent center-right country. Indeed, this idea has been parroted in many forms by a number of media talking heads, Charles Krauthammer, Ron Brownstein, Frank Rich and Mark Shields being the most notable. But I suspect regardless of what happens with Obamacare ,America will still be a competitive politically. Why? Three points. History, ideological inclinations and attention span.
First, let me note we are barely 50 days into the law. Both Social Security and Medicare got off to rocky starts but are around today. By the same token Congress’s attempt in 1988 to modify Medicare failed spectacularly and was repealed in 1989 in a bipartisan fashion. However, the 1988 law was endorsed by a prior President (Reagan) and the current President (HW) at the time of its repeal had never signed onto supporting the law thereby making repeal more likely. Obamacare is the President’s signature piece of legislation meaning it would be almost impossible for him to walk away from it.
The electoral history of our country is replete with stories of the two parties failing spectacularly but somehow never fading away. Think of the Republicans of the 1880’s, who when given control of government in 1888 pushed through massive infrastructure projects and eventually becoming known as the “Billion dollar Congress.” Republicans were thrown out and Democrats claimed unified control in 1893. Some even speculated it was the end of the GOP (shades of 2009 anybody). But the William Jennings Bryan Presidency and the scare of 1893 brought voters back into the arms of the GOP.
Need another example, perhaps a little more modern? Consider the aftermath of Woodrow Wilson’s second term. Warren Harding was elected with a landslide 26% percent spread (excluding third parties) and Republicans dominated Congressional and Senate races. In fact, Democrats lost every Senate race in the North. A mere two years later Democrats would dominate Congressional elections and take a majority in the House. Ten years later, the country would embark on a 20 year run of Democratic Presidencies.
FDR’s tenure was marked with success and failure and yet liberalism survived. FDR saw his party get massacred in 34 and 38 and the SCOTUS strike down some of his largest domestic policies, the National Industrial Recovery Act and his court packing schemes yet somehow he was reelected three times (died in office). In fact, his successor, Harry Truman, would follow almost the exact same domestic agenda policy script (minus civil rights) and be elected in 1948 to a full term. Yet, just as FDR’s tenure was rocky so was Truman’s. Republicans would roll to victory in 1946 and proceed over the next two years to demolish the WWI economy and regulatory apparatus. A mere two years later in 1948 Truman would be elected and Republicans would lose control of Congress. In 1952 Eisenhower would win the White House and propel his party to victory over a seemingly tired liberal agenda. Yet, in 1954 Democrats would embark on 40 year control of the House and over two decades of control in the Senate.
LBJ’s tenure was marked with turmoil and somehow liberalism survived. Nixon did win the White House twice but he did so by dissing some elements of his own party and embracing a moderate image. Or look at it another way. Watergate was supposed to kill conservatism and the GOP brand. Yet, six years after 1974 Republicans retook the White House and gained their first majority in the Senate in decades.
The failure of Hillarycare did not end efforts or demands for liberal reform of our Healthcare system. It might have slowed them down but it surely did not end them. Hillarycare called for a single payer system and many Democrats tried to reform our system in 2009 with this plan. What resulted was a watered down IM system that may or may not succeed.
This history shows that a party can be completely down and out but it is unlikely to become extinct. Our two-party system virtually ensures this. More relevant to today however is the ideological polarization of our country. Fewer voters are willing to split their tickets (especially in federal races). This means, and it is especially relevant to modern pollsters, we can have wild swings in who shows up to vote on election day. If partisan voters are fed up with their party they are more likely to stay home than go out and vote for the other party. Truly, most Independents who lean one way or the other behave the same way. For Democrats this means they worry about turnout in 2014 and 2016 and not necessarily damaging their brand permanently.
Lastly, the attention span of even the most ardent partisans (high info voters) are limited. The media only wants to spend so much time harping on a single issue because other issues come up that are just as relevant and they know the public has a short attention span. Just look at how issues have come and gone in this year alone. We have had the IRS unfairly auditing Tea Party groups, the NSA spying on average Americans and foreign government leaders. Let us also not forget the government shutdown. Yet what is the most consuming issue today on everybody’s mind? Obamacare and its horrid rollout. Polls are reflecting this as the GOP narrows the generic ballot and individual state polls show GOP candidates running strong or ahead of their Democratic alternatives.
Obamacare is likely to damage the Democratic brand for a short period of time. It surely could doom the next Democratic Presidential contender’s chances in 2016. But is unlikely to be the end of liberalism. Liberalism will survive beyond the three factors above as well because it is a core part of the Democratic Party. There will always be Bill de Blasio’s and Elizabeth Warren’s in the party’s ranks, reflecting the views of their base. Just as conservative candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul will be in the GOP’s. Liberalism will be around for a long time to come and conservatives need to understand this lest they let their guard down and let big government encroach on our rights and freedoms.