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The Only Winning Move is Not To Play

It was another choppy day for health care reform. One step forward in the House, where the Blue Dogs appear to have been placated, and two steps back* in the Senate, where discussions have stalled out between Max Baucus and his committee-within-a-committee of six Very Special Senators.

There is a difference, of course, between these two negotiations: one is being held between Democrats and their fellow Democrats, and the other is being held between Democrats and Republicans. Almost every Democrat, Blue Dogs included, are going to be in a better position if health care passes than if it fails. Not necessarily a good position: as we’ve said repeatedly, there are some Blue Dogs who would probably be better off if Obama hadn’t tried to tackle health care at all. But given that he has — how dare he try and enact his campaign platform! — they face a choice between getting blamed by only those people who don’t like health care reform and getting blamed by everyone.

The Senate Republicans, on the other hand: With the retirements of George Voinovich, Judd Gregg and Mel Martinez, and the party-switch of Arlen Specter, there are only two Republican Senators running for re-election this cycle in states won by Barack Obama. One of them is Richard Burr of North Carolina — a state where Obama won by a just fraction of a point and is now fairly unpopular. The other is Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is one of Baucus’s Special Six — but Iowans approve his performance by a 2:1 margin and he is facing only token opposition. Neither of these guys are exactly risking getting booted out of office if they don’t vote for health care.

Three other such Republicans will face re-election in 2012: first, John Ensign of Nevada, who is probably doomed no matter what he does, and Dick Lugar of Indiana, who is probably safe no matter what he does. Then there’s Olympia Snowe of Maine, who along with her colleague Susan Collins, is the one place where Obama might have a little leverage: he won their state, after all, by 18 points, and although Snowe and Collins are quite popular, they are popular precisely because they will buck their party from time to time. But they really are probably the sole exceptions: in every other marginal case, the damage that the failure of health care would do to Democrats’ messaging and morale probably outweighs any potential for backlash.

So what was Baucus hoping to achieve by negotiating with people who have an incentive to see the process fail? There are two basic cases here. Either the Democrats can muster all 60 votes on their own, and Grassley’s vote would be the icing on top of Obama’s victory cake and would only serve to improve the Democrats’ electoral prospects in 2010 and 2012. Or they can’t, in which case Grassley has it within his power to cause the Democrats a huge, potentially back-breaking headache. Either way, it’s hard to see what Grassley has to gain by striking a deal. If the Democrats only had 58 senators, or 59, then there would be more downside to Republicans: the Dems’ 2010 platform would instantly become — Let’s elect a few more Democrats to stop these Republican obstructionists! That’s not a bad message. But since the Democrats do have 60, it will be hard for them to creditably blame Republicans for health care’s failure.

There are two other reasons why someone like Grassley might be amenable to a compromise. One is if he simply thinks that health care reform is The Right Thing to Do. This is not intended (entirely) sarcastically: of the 100 Senators on the Hill, you can make a better case for Grassley than most as someone who is occasionally willing to vote out of something other than electoral expediency. Still, Grassley is at heart pretty darn conservative; it’s unlikely that he’s going to bed dreaming of gumdrops and the public option.

The other incentive is more perverse: if he thinks that Democrats can get 60 votes on their own, but that by inserting himself in the negotiations, he can ensure that a weaker bill is passed. Indeed, that would be a pretty good reason for Chuck Grassley to compromise. But it would be a pretty lousy one for Democrats to do so.

Or maybe it is the case that Democrats would be better off in the long run passing a weaker bill that gets some Republican support than a stronger one that doesn’t. But if so, what interest do the Republicans have in assisting them with that? From a partywide perspective, this is pretty much a zero-sum game. It might not be so for individual senators — you might have some individual actors who had strong incentives to compromise, even if this were against the overall best interests of their party. But as we’ve mentioned, there are almost no Republican senators who will be materially worse off if health care fails.

This is not exactly to suggest that Grassley is bargaining in bad faith. But he has almost no reason to compromise on any points of substance. At best, he’s probably somewhat indifferent between a weak health care bill passing and the whole enterprise failing apart; that’s a very dangerous person to be negotiating with. The same thing certainly goes for Mike Enzi, who is more conservative than Grassley and hails from a much redder state. Olympia Snowe is different: she is a de facto independent in a very blue state, who might even have some hopes of being on a Presidential ticket someday. (It will never happen, but would you really want to wager a lot of money betting against Snowe-Bloomberg, or Petraeus-Snowe, running on an independent platform?)

Instead of Grassley and Enzi, Baucus should be sitting in a room with Ben Nelson and Mary Landireu — and maybe Olympia Snowe. Those are the swing votes — the pressure points — the people with whom there’s actually something to be neogtiated. If Grassley wants to come in and snack on beef jerky and spitball a few ideas, then sure — door’s always open. But I don’t know what good he’s doing the Democrats by being given so leverage over the process.

* Or maybe two steps forward and one back. The compromise bill that had been floated earlier this week was a poor one — weak enough that one can actually imagine Enzi and Grassley having signed on to it. I don’t think they were in a position to make many more demands — the bill was already on the precipice of triggering a minor rebellion within the Democratic caucus. If either Baucus/Bingman/Conrad balked after their trial balloon had burst, and reneged on previous compromises, or Grassley/Enzi got greedy and made yet more demands, the negotiations could easily have collapsed. The point is, these neogitations were not particularly likely to succeed in the first place, nor are they particularly essential to health care’s success. Blame Baucus if you like — but blame him for getting into the wrong negotation with the wrong people, and not for how they may have ended.

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