Why is the President so persuasive? Seven lawmakers who voted no on health care reform in November switched positions yesterday. They had previously made statements critical of the bill, but flipped after meeting with the President. Perhaps the prestige of the Oval Office had an impact on them? Former House Majority Whip David Bonior (D-MI) tells another story in recounting the 1993 battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It was an usual debate in that Democratic lawmakers were opposing a treaty advocated by a Democratic President. Bonior remembers, “We had about a 25-vote lead going into the last two weeks. The President basically opened the store and people came down to the White House one by one and asked for things — roads, bridges, educational grants, fund-raisers. One by one I watched the lead disappear. The power of the presidency is huge.”
The White House has incredible power, but hopefully these lawmakers will not forget the sentiments being expressed by their constituents. They might also want to reflect on the fate of the 34 Democrats who were defeated in a similar situation.
Health care, tax increases and the prestige of a new Democratic President were also factors in 1993. Then freshman Rep. Don Johnson (D-GA) said “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that time. I remember it quite well, and it is tattooed inside my brain.”
Johnson recently spoke to WSB radio and said he repeatedly told President Clinton and Vice President Gore that he would not vote for a budget deal filled with tax increases. He remembers speaking to Gore on one phone while Clinton was calling him on another line. The Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell (D-ME), assured him there would be consideration of a cap on the growth of entitlement spending. At the last moment he changed his mind and voted with Clinton.
At the time the Clinton budget was the largest tax increase in history, and it passed by one vote. Every lawmaker who supported Clinton could be described as the decisive vote. Johnson held a town hall meeting shortly afterwards. One his constituents described he scene:
I had never been to one before, but I was energized by the crowd of 75 or so citizens, most of whom were mad as hell at what they considered a betrayal by Representative Johnson. Many of the questioners demanded to know what “Slick Willie” had promised the Congressman in return for his vote. The Congressman’s earnest, almost plaintive, statements that he made his vote in good conscious without any quid-pro-quo of any type were not well received by the hostile crowd.
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I, and most of the people at that meeting, did not behave respectfully to the Congressman. He was interrupted repeatedly by jeers, shouted rebuttals, and cat-calls. He made his points, but there was nothing he could say that could explain away his critical support for a large, unpopular tax increase. In any event, the crowd was not in a conciliatory mood, and let him know this in very direct and personal terms.
Johnson’s district had always been represented by Democrats but he was defeated in his 1994 bid for reelection by a shocking 31 points. Johnson was booed off the platform during other campaign events, the newspaper in Augusta (which had strongly backed him in 1992) took the unusual step of apologizing to the voters for its mistake.
He lost to a GOP dentist who had never run for elected office before. It was the first time since reconstruction that the district had voted for a Republican, and it remains in GOP hands today. It should also be noted that Johnson tried to run away from Clinton but it did not work because of his voting record. The Congressman said he would not want Clinton to visit his district unless he was “coming down to endorse my opponent.” The Clinton administration did take care of Johnson, and he subsequently received the rank of ambassador in the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
Many Democrats who vote yes on health care reform on Sunday will be defeated in November. It would be better for them and our nation if they would reflect on the consequences. If the bill is defeated the process can start over in a bipartisan manner.