New York Times's Brooks Misses the Politics of Healthcare Reform

Running away from something with 3 percent popularity is rational.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

David Brooks has a typically interesting column in today's Times arguing in favor of ending the tax exemption on employer-provided health benefits specifically and more broadly for a health overhaul plan (which contains that idea) cosponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican. But Brooks makes the mistake of assuming that because an idea makes practical sense it is politically viable.

Now you might think that in these circumstances someone might take a second look at the ideas incorporated in the Wyden-Bennett plan, which already has a good C.B.O. score, bipartisan support and a recipe for fundamental reform.

If you did think that, you are mistaking the Senate for a rational organism.

This laudable proposal, Brooks continues, is being ignored by villainous committee chairmen and their staffs, not to mention "the left," unions, and so forth. "Campaign consultants are horrified at the thought of fiddling with a popular special privilege," he writes.

Actually the Wyden-Bennett approach is unlikely to gain any traction because the Senate is a rational organism. As Washington Whispers reported yesterday (and Bonnie noted this morning), a mere 3 percent of respondents in a recent poll supported taxing employer-paid benefits. Supporting a huge public policy proposal that has only 3 percent popularity is the very definition of lacking political rationality ... unless you're in a very safe Senate seat.

And a perusal of the bill's cosponsors shows (h/t to the excellent U.S. News library for compiling the data) a list almost entirely composed of safe senators. To wit:

  • Wyden: Up for re-election next year, but won 63-32 in 2004 and is listed by Charlie Cook as safe.
  • Bennett: Also up in 2010, but won by an even wider margin, 69-28, last time out.
  • Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who won re-election last year with 65 percent of the vote.
  • Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who won re-election in 2006 by a 17-point margin (57-40) and is not up for another four years.
  • Mike Crapo—my personal favorite—an Idaho Republican who re-election in 2004 with, wait for it, 99 percent of the vote.
  • Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who won re-election last November with 58 percent of the vote.
  • Judd Gregg, a Republican of New Hampshire who might have faced a tough re-election fight next year ... if he weren't retiring.
  • Daniel Inouye, the Hawaii Democrat who won re-election five years ago with 76 percent of the vote.
  • Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who had what passes in this group for a tough re-election fight, winning 52-46 last November—but won't face voters again for six years.
  • Joe Lieberman, the McCainiac "Independent Democrat" who is still four years away from his next election.
  • Jeff Merkley, the junior Democrat from Oregon, who won a narrow election but won't face voters again until 2014.
  • Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat who won re-election with 60 percent of the vote in 2006.
  • Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who scored a 16-point victory (57-41) in 2006 and so won't stand for re-election until 2012.

There's one interesting name on the sponsor's list: Arlen Specter, Republican-turned-Democrat of Pennsylvania. I don't know the Pennsylvania electorate well enough to say for a certainty that "he wants to tax your healthcare benefits" will be as damning a political attack in a primary or general election race as it sounds on my computer screen, but we can be sure that Joe Sestak and Pat Toomey plan to find out.