As Yogi Berra once memorably said, it's deja vu all over again.
President Obama, without question, expected some pushback within his own caucus on health care reform. The explosive growth of the Democratic caucus in Congress over the last two cycles was necessarily going to put some Democratic members into perilous territory where aggressive reform might be politically toxic. Therefore, there were going to be some Democratic reps going the other way on any reform package that was beyond the most timid incrementalist approach.
But Jim Cooper?
Cooper is not like most of the vocal critics of aggressive reform. His district, the Nashville-based Tennessee 5th district, gave President Obama a healthy thirteen-point win in 2008, and even was carried by John Kerry as he was losing nationally in 2004. And, as a recent DailyKos poll clearly demonstrated, his district strongly (61-28) supports the idea of the public option, the component of health care reform that has become the primary crux of dispute. So any intransigence from Cooper cannot be chalked up as merely the act of a politician trying to divine the prevailing zeitgeist of their state or district.
It would seem, in part at least, to have its roots in events that occurred more than a decade-and-a-half ago.
In 1993, Jim Cooper was not the fifty-something political veteran representing the comparably blue-state environs of Davidson County, Tennessee. In 1993, Cooper was an ambitious young pol in his late thirties. The youngest member of the House when he was elected in the early '80s, Cooper had served a dozen years in the House, representing the considerably more conservative 4th district.
Unlike the primarily urban 5th district Cooper represents today, the 4th district of the 1990s was a primarily rural stretch of land in the north-central part of the state. While it had gone for Bill Clinton in 1992 (48% of the vote), it had gone easily for Republican George Bush in 1988 (58-42). Thus, in the early 90s (if not now), there was some political incentive for Jim Cooper to play the role of the centrist dealmaker.
Furthermore, Cooper was not long for the 4th district: even as the 1993-94 incarnation of the health care debate was heating up, Cooper was eyeing the Senate seat that had been left vacant by the ascendancy of Al Gore to the Vice-Presidency of the United States. Tennessee had a political profile that statistically was identical to the 4th district--won by Bill Clinton modestly (47-42), but easily carried by the GOP four years earlier (58-42).
Under this backdrop (right-of-center constituency, statewide ambitions), Jim Cooper embarked in the fall of 1993 on a journey whereupon he would seek to raise his own political profile by becoming the moderate alternative to the Clintons on the issue of health care.
This was not new ground for Cooper. He had pushed for an incremental "bipartisan" approach to health care even before the 1992 elections. But as the new Democratic President was preparing to make health care a signature issue of his presidency (including an address to a joint session of Congress that occurred almost exactly sixteen years ago), Cooper was looking to launch his own signature achievement.
Cooper introduced his bill (partnered with Republican Fred "Gopher" Grandy of Iowa) about two weeks after Clinton's major address to Congress on health care. As Mike Lux noted on Open Left in 2008, Cooper seemed intent on undercutting the Clinton initiative, and blunting any momentum for real reform:
I was part of the Clinton White House team on the health care reform issue in 1993/94, and no Democrat did more to destroy our chances in that fight than Jim Cooper. We had laid down a marker very early that we thought universal coverage was the most essential element to getting a good package, saying we were to happy to negotiate over the details but that universality was our bottom line.
Cooper, a leader of conservative Dems on the health care issue, instead of working with us, came out early and said universality was unimportant, and came out with a bill that did almost nothing in terms of covering the uninsured. He quickly became the leading spokesman on the Dem side for the insurance industry position, and undercut us at every possible opportunity, basically ending any hopes we had for a unified Democratic Party position.
Cooper clearly hoped that his bill would supersede the Clinton Bill, because it could attract Republican supporters (his original bill in 1992 had attracted a few dozen GOP co-sponsors). Of course, Republican support for ANY reform disintegrated after the GOP found more political mileage in unified opposition. As did all health care reform proposed in the 1993-94 session, Cooper's band-aid remedy went nowhere.
Which is not to say that Cooper did not benefit from his position, as the New York Times noted at the time:
In less than a year, the mild-mannered Democrat from the most rural House district in Tennessee has become the toast of health care providers and insurance companies, which have channeled tens of thousands of dollars of contributions to his campaign for a Senate seat.
Mr. Cooper is only one of the many politicians benefiting from the fund-raising frenzy set off by the national dialogue over health care.
Alas, his political promotion was not to be. With a GOP base energized by their successful stifling of health care, and a Democratic base deflated by their inability to get anything done, the Republican electoral of tsunami in 1994 was almost predictable, if landslides of that scale can truly be predicted.
One of the political casualties of that landslide election was none other than Jim Cooper. Cooper, who outspent Republican Fred Thompson, was nonetheless blasted by the staffer-turned-actor-turned-politician, with Thompson earning 60% of the vote. It was a defeat that seemed to mark the end of Cooper's political career just months after his 40th birthday. It was not until Bob Clement decided to run for the Senate in 2002 that Cooper had an opportunity to attempt a political second act.
Now, in 2009, one has to wonder whether Jim Cooper learned anything from 1994. As President Obama ramped up his health care reform efforts, there once again was Jim Cooper. This time, Cooper was not playing the role of the centrist outsider. This time, Cooper had some insider street cred, what with Obama naming him as one of his chief advisors on health care back in the 2008 campaign.
Yet, just like in 1994, here was Jim Cooper, more than willing to cast doubts on what many in his own party think is the primary objective in health care reform. In 1994, it was universality. In 2009, it is the public option.
Cooper's stance on the public option is a difficult one to divine. In June, he appeared to be on record supporting the public option. But the hedging from the Tennessee Democrat was apparent, as well. In August, Cooper seemed prepared to decry any effort by the Democrats to foresake the obstinate opposition of the GOP and go it alone on health care:
Democrats will not be able to "go it alone" on healthcare legislation and force through a bill with a public option on a party-lines vote, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said Wednesday.
"It's numerically not possible," Cooper, a centrist Blue Dog Democrat who has long focused on healthcare issues, said in an interview on MSNBC. "We don't have enough votes."
A week later, when Daily Kos ran the poll numbers in his district, he launched into a bit of a pissing match with the site, claiming that the "whole premise" of the poll misrepresented his position on the public option (the poll, actually, never stated Cooper's position on health care or the public option, but rather asked if the voters of the 5th approved of his stance).
Of course, it is forgiveable for his constituents to be unclear of his position on the public option when he "clarifies" his position like this (text taken from an email from Cooper to a Daily Kos diarist):
I have and will continue to support a public option on a level-playing field. A public option should be an important check on price and quality as long as it is created to increase competition. But, as the President has said many times, the public option cannot be the sole focus of the debate.
This does not read like someone intent on assisting the leader of his party push through difficult legislation. It reads much more like someone willing to jettison the public option, and any other progressive objectives on health care, at the first opportunity. Which should sound familiar to anyone who remembers the Clinton battles on health care.
There are differences between 1994 and 2009, of course. For one thing, Cooper now appears to be politically insulated. He seems to have given up any statewide political ambitions, and his new Congressional district is much more progressive than his old one. He could, of course, be subject to a primary challenge, but those rarely come to fruition.
The question, though, is how many other Democrats could find themselves in jeopardy if Cooper and his ideological allies get their way.
Health care reform completely stifled by internecine warfare among Democrats and unified opposition among Republicans?
As a result, an energized GOP base, having successfully smothered "evil socialism" in the crib?
Conversely, a depressed Democratic base, having twice in their recent lifetimes watched their efforts to elect Democratic presidents and huge Congressional majorities be for naught?
Somehow, it seems that we have all seen this movie before.