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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Barring a Christmas miracle that saves Sen. Mary Landrieu’s job, the Democratic disappearing act in the South is about to claim another casualty. The Republican tide, expected to net a new senator in Louisiana’s runoff election this weekend, brings to mind Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s rueful remark after he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “We have lost the South for a generation,” he reportedly said.

Johnson was right and then some. He forged ahead anyway, signing the Voting Rights Act the following year. But if Sen. Charles Schumer had been advising him, he might have called the whole thing off.

“To aim such a huge change … at such a small percentage of the electorate [makes] no political sense,” the New York Democrat might have told Johnson. “The average middle-class person” will think that “the Democrats are not paying attention to me.” Better to focus on jobs and wages, build a “permission structure,” and then get around to civil rights … sometime.

Those phrases are lifted from Schumer’s retrospective critique of the 2010 Affordable Care Act last month at the National Press Club. “We put all of our focus on the wrong problem,” he said last month. This is the crux of a years-long argument I’ve been having with a colleague who believes the ACA locked the Democrats into a lost political decade. It also echoes a conversation I had recently with pollster David Winston, a strategist for House and Senate Republicans, about immigration reform. It’s important, he said, but “given all the problems facing the country, is this what the public wants people here to be focused on?”

Let’s face it, there is never a good political moment to do anything that relatively few people care about, no matter how obvious or deep the need. The laws Johnson signed held direct benefits for only about 1 in 10 Americans — the black population at the time — while alienating many whites. The consequences included Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” tailored to the interests and biases of white Southerners, and a steady Democratic decline in the region. All 22 senators from the South in 1961-62 were Democrats. Now that number is six and appears likely to dip next year to three, all from the atypical Southern states of Florida and Virginia.

The Affordable Care Act has certainly contributed to Democratic misfortunes, in part by fueling Tea Party grievances. Republican Scott Brown won the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy in early 2010 in large part by pledging to block passage of the ACA. At town halls that year, angry constituents accosted members of Congress about socialism and death panels. Democrats were decimated at every level in 2010, just in time for GOP-run states to lock in new House district maps that maximized their grip on Congress until the 2020 Census. Obama’s approval rating sagged and Democrats endured another across-the-board wipeout in 2014.

But is it fair to blame the ACA for all of that? In 2009, more than a year before its passage, Tea Party activists were already staging protests against the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the bank bailout signed by George W. Bush, and the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package signed by President Obama. In 2010, at a nominating convention in Salt Lake City held after passage of both the stimulus and the ACA, they ousted conservative Republican Sen. Bob Bennett over his vote for TARP.

The larger picture also came into play. Obama took office just when government had to grow in response to the financial collapse, both automatically through entitlement programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits, and proactively with measures like the auto bailout (initiated by Bush, enlarged by Obama) and the stimulus. All of this was anathema to small-government partisans.

In short, there was plenty to incite the Tea Party before the ACA made the scene. Schumer in fact undercut his political case against the ACA and for more stimulus-type bills by noting that Republicans — ignoring tax cuts and many other middle-class benefits in the stimulus — focused on about 5 percent of the money that went to pet projects. They framed the whole thing as “a taxpayer-funded giveaway to special interests,” he said.

Conservatives demonized health reform the same way, painting it as a job-killing socialist giveaway to the poor. Yet the law, with its protections against insurance company abuses and medical bankruptcy, and the freedom it gives people to change jobs, is a largely unrecognized boon to the middle class. For those previously uncovered, especially poor and low-income adults, it’s improving lives and even saving some.

Democrats have dreamed of mending the health care hole in the nation’s safety net for more than a half-century. They finally mustered the votes and will to get it done, and millions are better off for it. Some sacrifices are worth the pain.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a group of business leaders at the quarterly meeting of the Business Roundtable in Washington, D.C. on December 3, 2014. (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)