From the lead front-page article in this morning's New York Times comes the following analysis of why a health-care overhaul is likely to become law: "Politically, there is an imperative for Democrats to act; they remember well the disastrous political fate that befell them in 1994, when they lost control of the House and Senate after failing to pass a health bill under President Bill Clinton."
The idea that the Democrats lost control of Congress as a kind of punishment for failing to pass health care is a strange one. If voters were angry that health care failed, why would they put in Republicans, who were the ones who blocked it, rather than the Democrats, who at least tried to pass it? A more common explanation is that in 1994 the voters were punishing Democrats for attempting an overly ambitious and secretive goverment takeover of the health care system. By that explanation, it wasn't the failure to pass health care that voters were punishing in 1994, but the effort to pass it. That explanation is one that comes with different lessons for today's Democrats.
That isn't to say that the 1994 election was all about health care. It wasn't. It was about lots of other things, too, including the tax increases that took the place of Mr. Clinton's promised middle tax class cuts, the sluggish economy, and the decision to try a health-care overhaul first instead of a welfare law overhaul. Nor is this to say that passage of a health-care overhaul might not bring some political dividends. It might. But to look back at 1994 and draw the lesson that if you don't push your unpopular, complex. big-government health-care overhaul bill through Congress in the face of overwhelming public opposition, American voters are going to punish you at the ballot box is a head-scratcher.