Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer: Democrats Made a Mistake Putting Health Care Reform Before the Economy


Photo credit: Atomische * Tom Giebel /Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

At a speech at the National Press Club yesterday morning, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) argued that Democrats were wrong to take on health care reform so soon after the 2008 election.

"Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them" after electing Barack Obama president and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Schumer said, according to Bloomberg News. "We took their mandate and put all our focus on the wrong problem—health care reform." Democrats, he argued, should have focused on jobs and the economy first, and tackled health care reform later. It wasn't a mistake the pass the health law, in other words, but a mistake to put it at the top of the to-do list. 

These remarks are already getting a lot of attention, but Schumer isn't treading entirely new ground here. 

In 2010, after Democrats took a beating at the polls, retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh wrote in The New York Times that his party "overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession."

Bayh was more of a moderate than Schumer, of course, but by the time the 2010 midterm campaign kicked into gear, Democrats seemed to understand where the nation's political priorities lay. In the runup to that election, Democratic strategists tacitly admitted that the health care overhaul was not a big political winner, and that the economy was more important, with one party strategist telling the L.A. Times,  "I am not one who thinks our candidates should go out and sell healthcare reform. They have to stay focused on jobs, the economy and shaking up Washington." The Democratic strategy that year, which mostly avoided talking up Obamacare, more or less confirmed this thinking. 

This idea had actually started to seep into the political conversation earlier, around the beginning of 2010, right after the surprise election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts put the passage of the health care in jeopardy. Democrats at the time, especially moderates, were scared, and some viewed the election as a referendum on the not-yet-passed health care bill, and a signal, perhaps, that the economy should have come first. Pundits like Charlie Cook argued explicitly that the mistake had been to focus on health care and not prioritize jobs—a version of what Schumer is saying today. 

Indeed, this isn't even very new for Schumer. The Senator told The New Yorker in 2010 that "if I were President I might not have [tried to pass health care legislation]."

Democrats, of course, initially thought they had put job creation and economic boosterism first. Remember, the first big item of the Obama era wasn't the health care law, which didn't pass until March of 2010, but the stimulus, which sailed through the legislative process in less than a month after Obama's inauguration, and was touted constantly for boosting the overall economy and creating millions of jobs. 

It's possible, I suppose, Schumer's statement, which is relatively detailed about the ways the law has cost the party, could signal that Democrats are starting to grapple with how politically problematic Obamacare has been, and may continue to be, for Democrats. While some rank and file Democrats were worried about the law's political prospects around the time of passage, the message from the party was that it would be a political success after passage. Obviously that has yet to prove correct. Obamacare probably cost Democrats the House in 2010. And as Schumer also noted today, the disastrous rollout of the exchanges last year contributed to the public disillusionment that helped Republicans take control of the Senate in this year's midterm.

But other parts of Schumer's statement suggest that he still has a few things to figure out. 

 "Republicans and the anti-government Tea Party filled that vacuum and spent 2010 convincing the average American that not only did Obamacare not work for them, not only would a parade of horribles emerge," Schumer also said today, noting the botched rollout of Obamacare's exchanges, "but they turned Obamacare into a general metaphor and falsely convinced the electorate that government couldn't work anywhere."

Democrats are "a pro-government party," he said. "We have been all along. We can't run from it."

So the problem was that Democrats embraced a big-government solution—Obamacare—thinking it would be a political advantage. It wasn't. Democrats ran from it, botched the implementation, and suffered as a result. 

And his proposed solution is to…embrace big-government solutions, because this time they'll work, and be good politics?