Health-Care Reform: Lessons From '94 Crime Bill

Now that health-care reform is the president's bill, congressional Democrats inclined to oppose it will have to go to the Oval Office and look President Obama in the eye when they make their case. That's a lot tougher than begging off in Nancy Pelosi's or Harry Reid's office. We finally have Obama where we want him, which is taking the leadership reins to push health-care reform across the finish line. Passing it may be tough politically, but it could turn out, like the 1994 crime bill, to be a long-term success.

Succeeding on the core issue of his first year is central to Obama's political success, but for Democrats sitting in shaky seats, voting for legislation that half the country doesn't want feels like walking the plank. The country is disappointed that Obama hasn't done more to bring the change he promised, but the real focus of voter anger is Congress and the odious preening and dealmaking that have become front and center in the legislative process.

Asking Congress to go against public opinion is perilous, says Bill Schneider, a public-opinion expert at Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank. Schneider adds that the risk is compounded by reconciliation, a maneuver to allow parts of the legislation to prevail with 51 votes. "There will be a firestorm if it passes," he says. Democrats are bracing for that, but most have concluded that no bill is a worse outcome, and that they have until November to turn around public opinion by focusing on aspects of the legislation that people favor, like popular insurance reforms or closing the doughnut hole for seniors in their prescription-drug coverage.

It is a winnable argument, but maybe not in time to save vulnerable Democrats in the November midterms. The closest analogy to what Democrats face with health-care reform is the crime bill. It was a short-term disaster for Democrats, contributing to their loss of congressional majorities in the House and Senate, but it came to be seen as a major success and was credited with bringing down crime rates. Crime was the hot-button cultural issue at the time, invoked by Republicans to paint Democrats as weak.

The bill expanded the federal death penalty to dozens more crimes, funded more prison construction, and promised 100,000 more cops on the street, President Clinton's signature proposal. It passed the House handily (285 to 141) and was joined in an omnibus crime bill with other more controversial legislation, notably a ban on assault weapons, which survived by a single vote in the House when a Democrat from Indiana switched from no to yes. Jim Kessler, a policy analyst at Third Way, worked on the bill as an aide to New York Rep. Chuck Schumer (now a senator), who was the principal sponsor in the House. He says the 100,000 cops were popular; the assault weapons ban controversial but necessary; the weak link in the chain was money for youth sports leagues, which Rush Limbaugh dubbed "midnight basketball."

Opening community centers on weekend nights to get kids off the streets was emblematic of the crime-prevention programs in the bill, and it was enough for Republicans to ridicule the $30 billion bill as out-of-control Washington, liberal do-gooder spending. With crack wars getting headlines, voters were poised to punish politicians who were soft on crime.

Democrats were able to pass the bill, and when members went home to their districts for the August recess, only then did they realize how much trouble they were in with the voters. The legislation would prove a liability in November as Democrats lost the Congress, but very quickly crime rates dropped and Democrats claimed the legislation as a major achievement. Clinton still talks about 100,000 cops on the street, and Vice President Joe Biden on the campaign trail in 2008 hailed the Violence Against Women Act, which was part of the 1994 crime bill, and which he sponsored. Thanks to the crime bill's success, Democrats eliminated the political liability that fear of crime had saddled them with since the 1960s.

When the furor over "death panels" erupted last summer, Kessler saw it as the "midnight basketball-ization" of major legislation—where Republicans find something that is emblematic of liberal ideology or Congress out of control, and then pound away until they potentially bring down the entire edifice. This time the danger warning arrived much earlier, with the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Democrats, with Obama taking the lead, have time to save themselves and their majority by simply doing their jobs and passing a health-care bill. "If we can improve health care the way we improved crime rates, it would be a miracle," says Kessler. Conservatives joke that Obama was born in a manger, but even miracles take time.

Eleanor Clift is the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.