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Better to be Strong and Wrong — Especially When You’re Actually Right

By no means do I think it a slam dunk that passage of health care reform would be a boon to the Democrats in November. My arguments are really geared more toward the long term, both in terms of the Democrats reminding their voters that their party still stands for something, and in terms of passing a policy which, if the experience with RomneyCare is any guide, will eventually turn out to be quite popular. And of course, there’s the whole matter of the 30-some million uninsured people that the bill would cover and the lives that it would save.

Still, in making the near-term political case against passing health care reform, Megan McArdle in fact makes a point that argues strongly for “getting it done”.

There is nothing good you can say about an actual bill that you couldn’t say about a bill that you voted for, but didn’t pass. It’s true that this is going to make campaigns hard next fall. But at least now Democrats can say that they thought the better of it. What’s their excuse if they pass it?

Thought better of it? Health care reform has been at the core of the Democratic agenda for literally the better part of a century. It has taken on different manifestation at different times, but it is really the one unbending constant.

So now you’re going to say that in six months the Republicans — who offered no serious alternative to health care reform and who (in some cases) helped deceive the public into believing that the bill does all sorts of things that it does not actually do — have convinced you that this policy your party has been championing for decades was a bad idea? That one special election in Massachusetts changed your mind about a bill that you’d spent your whole life campaigning upon and probably in fact voted for for as recently as November or December?

Megan has a generally heterodox set of political viewpoints so perhaps this is more difficult for her to envision than for someone like me — who votes for Democrats 90-95 percent of the time and whose views are fairly conventionally left-of-center on most issues. From my point of view, this is the equivalent of a Republican saying: “You know what, my opponent is right — lower taxes are a bad idea on principle.” It’s a stake in the heart of the liberal/progressive value system.

But even for a voter who is less well-informed and is only picking up an impressionistic residue of each candidate’s message, there’s something to be said for Bill Clinton’s statement that “When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right.” If you’ve conceded that one of your ideas — one of your most important ideas is a bad one — why should the public trust any of the other ideas that you have? Instead, they’re going to say: Well, thank you Mr. Blue Dog — I’m glad you’ve come around to my way of thinking on this. Now I’m going to vote for the guy who didn’t have the bad idea in the first place.

The one thing that Democrats categorically don’t want to do is concede that their ideas on health care reform were wrong. Blame Republican obstructionism, blame the recession, blame Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman for gutting the bill of its core values. All of these arguments are … unconvincing (particularly the bit about obstructionism — Democrats still do have the votes to pass the bill on their own) … but they’re not actually dangerous to the future of the Democratic Party, as this argument will tend to be.

I’m picking on Megan a little bit here and perhaps using her as a bit of a strawwoman; she makes a number of good points in her article, which you should read in full. But the point is, if the Democrats don’t pass health care reform will have to address the fundamental question that Megan brings up — which is, why did you change your mind? And their potential answers to that question range from unpersuasive to suicidal.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.