Like the break-up of a long and difficult relationship, the Senate's passage of the health care bill brought, to begin with, a sense of enormous relief. The continuing controversies which the bill must surmount, including the one about abortion, actually offer some hope that we may be moving into a new phase of our political life. The abortion compromise, to begin with, has drawn heated opposition from both the right and the left. More interestingly, it has also split Catholic hospitals, which favor the bill with the compromise, from the Catholic hierarchy, which opposes it. The split within one of our most ideological political constituencies between purists and some on the firing line of public policy who want to get something done is welcome.
That, in turn, brings me to an essay that I would like to share, from Nate Silver, the baseball analyst turned political analyst who writes the blog fivethirtyeight.com. Thanks to Bill James, whose ideas have probably changed the thinking of more Americans on a subject of general interest (baseball), the analysis of baseball statistics has crossed several intellectual frontiers over the past three decades. Silver, now 31, came from the younger generation of analysts and contributed key concepts to baseball-prospectus.com, a site which not only tries to estimate the worth of individual players, but also spends a lot of time analyzing winning strategies for teams. It took about twenty years for sabermetrics, as the discipline is called, to penetrate into baseball front offices, but several general managers, led by Billy Beane of the Oakland As and Theo Epstein of my own Red Sox (who hired James), have been using it to improve their teams, with remarkable results, for some time. (In Beane's case sound judgment enabled him to keep the As in the playoffs for quite a few years despite vastly inferior financial resources, but his luck has run out for the time being.)
Silver's essay, which I want to summarize, is a great example of how data can open up our thinking. It deals, really, with the critical issue of party and ideological loyalty, which is playing such an enormous role in Washington just now. One reading gave me an entirely new way of looking at the issue of Blue Dog Democrats and how mainstream Democrats like myself should see them. It was not an entirely new view, but I needed reminding.
The essay compared the voting records of every member of the House on ten crucial votes this year to the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) for his district. The PVI simply compares the presidential vote in that district during the last two elections to the vote in the whole country. Silver correlated the percentage of times that each Congressman voted with the Administration with its district's PVI. That gave him a set of correlations between the PVI of a district (such as R+10, or 10% Republican, or D+7, or 7% Democrat) and how the representative voted on each of these ten key issues. (The whole article, including the list of issues he used, is here.
The next step is more subtle, but critical to understanding what Silver did. First, he arranged the study to evaluate Democratic Congressmen (he's a Democrat) based on the worth of their presence in the House to their party. Every time a Democrat voted FOR an Administration measure, Silver subtracted his district's PVI from 1, and the result became the Congressman's score on that particular vote. Thus, while my own Patrick Kennedy, whose district's PVI must be around 60% (based on our votes in the last two elections) voted for the stimulus package, he got a score of .40 . But if a Democrat from a district with a PVI of .37 from a Democratic view--that is, a district whose Democratic vote in 2004 and 2008 averaged 37%--then he would receive a score on that vote of .63, and count, by Silver's reckoning, as a more valuable Democrat. Silver, in fact, used this method to identify the ten most valuable Democrats in the House--but that's not what I'm going to focus on right now.
Instead, more generally, I would like to suggest that this measurement allows mainstream or left-wing Democrats like myself to evaluate our more conservative fellow party members more realistically. The issue is not how often they agree with us, because if a Democrat in a strongly Republican-leaning district (of which there are now quite a few) always voted with us, he or she would probably lose next time around. The issue is whether such people vote with the Administration at a higher rate than their PVI would suggest they should. If they do, we should support their continued presence as the best alternative available. If they don't, then there's no reason to be particularly upset if they are defeated or switch parties, since a Republican would vote about the same way most of the time. (We are, of course, talking about the House here, not the Senate, where Democrats now need every single one of their votes--but I'll return to that later.)
And indeed, there are also Democrats, including the other one from my state, James Langevin, whose votes on the whole are to the right of their district--that is, they vote for the Administration less often than most representatives whose districts have comparable PVIs. They are the ones who, logically, should face primary opposition. They may be better than a Republican from a Democratic point of view, but they are certainly not the best Democrat that that district could elect.
This brings us to the notorious Senator Lieberman, the Democrats' 60th vote in the Senate. There are few if any Americans who have come to dislike him more than myself, but given the situation in which we find ourselves, the decision to let him keep his seniority was correct. There will be absolutely no reason, however, to show him the slightest mercy in the election of 2012, because he is almost surely the most conservative Senator that Connecticut could ever elect. Any other Democrat would be a vast improvement, and no Republican can possibly be elected in that race anyway--even, in my judgment, Lieberman, should he switch parties.
And what of the Republicans? To put it bluntly, they have become far too partisan to pay attention to anything as logical as Silver's analysis. The majority of the Republican Party now rejects any Republican who will not toe the party line on a wide range of issues (including, or should I say especially, social issues), no matter where that Republican comes from. The Republicans drove Arlen Spector out of their party immediately after Rick Santorum, an arch-conservative, had been beaten in Pennsylvania because Spector was too liberal. As a result, they will have no Senators from Pennsylvania for some time to come. (That does not mean, however, that Democrats should be eager to keep Spector in office--Pennsylvania certainly could elect a far more liberal Democrat than he.) As my former Senator Lincoln Chafee often remarks, every Republican from the Northeast or other liberal parts of the country fears a primary challenge if they vote for abortion rights, or for the President's stimulus, or, obviously, for health care reform. That presumably is why both Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine continue to oppose the health care bill.
I remain extremely concerned about the future of the country and the Obama Administration for a different reason. Consensus is obviously necessary to pass anything nowadays, but it may also, at least for time being, make it impossible to pass anything effective. The Health Care Reform Act is not scheduled to come into effect until 2014, making it not only possible, but, one might suggest, logical for insurance companies to deny coverage as often as possible in the meantime. We may desperately need stronger regulatory and job-creation measures than a consensus, at the moment, will pass, in order to promote genuine economic recovery. But Gen Xers like Silver (and the President!), who focus relentlessly upon results, have what amounts to an insurmountable argument: there's no point holding a line that is certain to be outflanked. Despite all the talk about Roosevelt's hundred days, the struggle for the New Deal lasted for the whole of his three terms. We have begun more slowly and may have at least as far to go. Within that context, the health care bill is an important step, and we have to make sure that it becomes the first of many.