The Affordable Care Act and Long Term Partisan Trends

Lots of talk about health care expert Jonathan Gruber’s shot at Mitt Romney yesterday, but I wanted to challenge one thing he said (via Greg):

Look, if this succeeds, then Obama becomes F.D.R. This is the most important social policy accomplishment since the 1960s. And if this succeeds, this could be the kind of benefit to the Democratic Party that Social Security was. So if I was the Republicans, I’d be screaming and kicking and scratching to kill it too, on purely political grounds,” he said.

I’m pretty skeptical about all of this. Social Security became law in 1935, and began paying benefits in 1940. Does it really explain much of FDR’s success and Democratic success in general in the 1930s and 1940s, or in later years? I doubt it. Certainly there was a massive shift to the Democrats, but that’s almost certainly a consequence of the Depression and FDR’s perceived responsibility for saving the country from Depression and then from Nazis. The only clear cases, that is, where I think Social Security helped the Democrats was when despite its overwhelming popularity Republicans chose to oppose it, or to trim benefits, or to mess with it in some other way. The story seems even more clear-cut with Medicare; after all, it’s also wildly popular, but Democrats lost five of the six presidential elections after it was passed.

Now, granted, a whole lot more is going on in any of those elections than Social Security or Medicare. Still, my guess is that when these things pass and become popular, it probably helps the current incumbent a bit if he’s up for re-election, but after that it’s all a wash; it quickly becomes just part of the background, something that’s always been there and that everyone supports and takes for granted.

Of course, if it doesn’t become popular, then that’s a whole different story. But if ACA survives the courts, and survives the outcome of the 2012 elections, and gets implemented and turns out to work more or less the way that Gruber (and Barack Obama) believe it will, my guess is that it will have virtually no direct political effect going forward, and little or no indirect effect.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.