James L. Oberstar was riding pretty high in Congress. Over the course of 18 elections, the Democrat had never received less than 59 percent of the vote in his northeastern Minnesota district, and he had finally realized a longstanding ambition by chairing the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Then, he voted for the big health care bill in 2010. Oberstar soon lost his seat, along with 63 other House Democrats.
He doesn’t regret it.
“The Supreme Court decision is vindication in spades for me and I hope for others who voted for it,” he says.
Oberstar was one of 13 Democrats who were defeated chiefly because of the health care bill, according to a study by two political scientists.
“Most of the time in the midterm elections, the president’s party loses seats,” says study coauthor Seth Masket of the University of Denver. The health care bill, though, “was like additional doom.”
Oberstar says the chance to extend health care coverage to millions of Americans was too great an opportunity to pass up. He recalls bringing lunch to his steelworker father on a picket line in 1952, when his dad was striking for health benefits.
“I voted for it because I thought it was the right policy for this country,” he says. “I thought it was the kind of transformational legislative initiative that candidate Obama promised and President Obama delivered.”
If anything, Oberstar sounds dissatisfied that the legislation didn’t go far enough, saying he favored a single-payer approach.
His former colleague Ciro Rodriguez, of Texas, agrees. Rodriguez says more work remains to be done to get pharmaceutical costs under control.
Rodriguez notes that more than 30 percent of the people in his district in southwestern Texas lack health insurance. “This decision will definitely be beneficial for everyone, regardless of whether they have insurance,” he says.
Polls indicate that a large share of the public still isn’t sold. That means support for the law poses dangers to ousted representatives such as Rodriguez who are trying to get their seats back this fall.
“The health care law remains very controversial,” Masket notes. “Where it was unpopular two years ago, it remains unpopular today.”
Rodriguez is betting his political resurrection on the idea that, once all aspects of the law take effect, most people will decide that its virtues outweigh any drawbacks.
“Of course, that’s what I said two years ago,” he admits.