Pre-writing History

As the administration's final push for health care begins, the knowing wags of Washington seem to have gained a sudden interest in offering insight into why reform failed -- even though it hasn't yet. Obama should have listened more to Rahm Emanuel and done small-bore health initiatives, says the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. No, he should never have tried health-care reform at all and "focused" more on jobs says Charlie Cook (like virtually everyone who offers this advice, Cook declines to say what this "focus" should have consisted of). But as Jon Chait reminds us, "I don't think you can answer the question of whether it made sense to undertake health care reform until we know whether or not it passes. If it does pass, it was a good idea. ... If it fails, it was a bad idea."

Quite so. It's often said that history is written by the winners, but the more literal truth is that the history we notice is written about the victory. (Losers actually spend lots of time writing history; it's just that no one pays much attention to their books and articles.) Reform's fate is still very much in doubt -- like Chait, I'd put the odds of success at 50-50 (always a safe prediction). If it succeeds, all the post-mortems from folks like Milbank and Cook will be about how shrewd the administration was and how foolish the Republicans were, how Obama managed, despite all the obstacles in his way, to accomplish what presidents dating back to Harry Truman could not. The data points that today seem so meaningful if you're asking what went wrong -- the "death panels," the excruciating "Gang of Six" negotiations, the self-righteous preening of Joe Lieberman -- will in retrospect look like tiny bumps in the road that couldn't derail a brilliant strategy.

There's a parallel in the way journalists cover campaigns. Since the overwhelming majority of campaign coverage concerns strategy and tactics (and not, say, the substance of issues), winning gets you good coverage and losing gets you bad coverage. When a candidate is ahead in the polls, reporters ask "Why is she ahead?" then answer their question by going over all the good things she's doing. She's an inspiring speaker, her ground operation is well-organized, she did a terrific job of garnering endorsements, and so on. If a week later the candidate slips behind, the reporters will ask "Why is she behind?" then answer their question by going over all the bad things she's doing. Think back to the election of 2000, which was essentially a tie. We remember how clever the Bush campaign was, but no one talks about all the smart things the Gore campaign did. Had 537 votes in Florida gone the other way, we'd remember the Gore campaign as the deft one.

In a few weeks when this is all over, lots of writers will be offering their explanations of why things turned out the way they did. Most of them will say that given the choices the administration and Democrats in Congress made, defeat was inevitable. Or victory was assured. Depending on what happens.

-- Paul Waldman

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