Saturday, April 10, 2010

Health care, politics, and the Democrats who keep their promises

Third in a series of articles on the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

I've written about what the health care bill will do for people. Everyone will be able to buy insurance, even those with pre-existing medical problems. Those who can't afford it will get a subsidy. American taxpayers are winners too; they'll no longer be paying out of pocket for the uninsured and indigent to use public hospital emergency rooms for all their health services. Healthy people are also more productive and pay more taxes.

Now I get to talk about the political winners and losers. Hooray! Ok. I declare the biggest loser, by a country mile, to be Fred Barnes of the right-wing rag the Weekly Standard. Just sixty-two days before the health care bill was signed into law, Fred wrote,

"The health care bill, ObamaCare, is dead with not the slightest prospect of resurrection."
"Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is the new king of Capitol Hill."

I further declare the aforementioned Mr. McConnell to be the second biggest loser. In the days before Congress passed the final bill, McConnell was very vocal about his belief that Democrats would deeply damage their chances in this fall's election if they did not abandon health care reform. According to McConnell, "Just looking at the politics of it there’s nothing but pain here for the next four years. Why in the world would they conclude that would be popular?"

Jonathan Chait of the New Republic wrote what I thought was a very good commentary on McConnell,

"Imagine McConnell is correct: Republicans will gain a massive advantage if Democrats pass health care reform. Why would McConnell signal this now, before Democrats have passed it, while they still have time to heed his warning and save themselves? Since we can assume that McConnell badly wants to become Senate Majority Leader, it seems awfully inconsistent with his self-interest for him to hand out such valuable strategic advice to the opposing party. Am I cynical for suspecting that maybe McConnell is not offering this advice to Democrats in good faith?"

Ah, but was McConnell right? How happy, or angry are the voters as a result of health care reform finally becoming law? Well, it kind of depends on how you look at it. One day after passing the bill, it looked like Democrats were doing pretty well for themselves. Glynnis MacNicol of noted,

"initial polls are showing that health care approval ratings have gone up (also President Obama's). A USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that “49%-40% of those surveyed say it was ‘a good thing’ rather than a bad one that Congress passed the bill.” This is in contrast to last week when there was “a plurality against it.”"

Current polls actually show that more Americans are still against the bill than are for it. While this is not good news, it also seems that Republicans are not getting a lot of traction in calling for the actual repeal of the bill. Republican Congressman Mark Kirk, who is running in a tight race for Barack Obama's old Senate seat in Illinois, initially promised to lead the charge to repeal health care reform. When that promise didn't test very well with Illinois voters however, he immediately announced that repeal is "impossible." Other Republicans, like Iowa's Chuck Grassley, have been bragging about their role in shaping the bill and talking about their favorite provisions in the legislation. This is odd, since every single Republican in Congress, Grassley included, fought tooth and nail to make sure the bill would never see the light of day.

But these things aren't what concern me the most in terms of the bill and its political fallout. What's most important is this: Democrats in Congress needed to finish health care reform in order to re-motivate their own base and get  Democratic voters fired up to go to the polls this November.

Returning to the same article I linked above, I happen to agree with Jonathan Chait who believes, "that the Democrats have already suffered most or all of the damage they're going to suffer from trying to pass health care reform, and that failure will cause even sympathetic voters to conclude that Democrats don't deserve to keep their majority. Passing the bill might staunch the depression of the Democratic base and allow for a different narrative."

As I've noted before, polls from late 2009 showed that Democrats might be headed for a disaster in the 2010 mid-terms due to the enthusiasm gap. According to a 11/30/09 poll, 81% of Republicans said they definitely or probably would vote in 2010, while only 56% of Democrats did. So, did passing health care reform do anything to close this gap? It seems that for the most part, the answer is yes. The same poll taken again after the health care bill was passed showed the "intensity gap" described above shrinking from a staggering 25 points to a manageable 7.

So, does this mean that Democrats are out of woods, and can expect that the 2010 election will result in only mild losses for them in Congress? Well, no. The chances of a Republican wave this fall are actually still pretty high. This Gallup poll, which measure voter intensity in a slightly different way than the Research 2000 poll I linked above, still shows Republicans as far more motivated than Democrats.

The recent polls of hot 2010 races have also been a mixed bag. On the one hand, I've seen very encouraging polls that suggest that Democrats might hold onto the Governor's office and pickup the open Senate seat in Ohio, and even win the Governor's office in red-state Georgia. On the other hand, I've seen discouraging news from polls of the key races in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

In conclusion, while Democrats may not have staved off disaster in the coming election, I'm sure that the health care reform bill is more helpful than hurtful for them in 2010. By passing President Obama's signature legislative initiative and breaking through the Republican policy of total government gridlock, congressional Democrats have made good on the promise that got them elected. That promise, of course, was that unlike Republicans, Democrats can govern competently.

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