Thursday, October 28, 2010

Health Care Legislative Tactics Doomed 2010 Democrats

The New York Times is out with a poll today from which they draw the conclusion that the demographic coalition that elected President Obama is splintering at the margins, turning Obama voters into Republican or non-voters. Certainly the data tell that story, but I think the more important story is the reason that voters give for abandoning the Democratic party after one of its most successful legislative sessions it has ever had.

The NYT article includes the anecdote gleaned from a post-survey interview of one voter:
Judy Berg, an independent from Morton Grove, Ill., said she voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 because she was “looking for a change,” adding, “the change that ensued was not the change I was looking for but something totally out of left field.”
What was the largest gap between the Obama's campaign sloganeering and the reality of the legislation passed into law? The stimulus package was a campaign promise. TARP was well-publicized and generally acknowledged as a policy that Obama would continue. Financial regulation was a centerpiece of speeches after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in early October 2008. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a campaign promise, though honestly, nobody is talking about it. Similarly while President Obama has not made good on his pledge to end DADT or close the dubiously legal prison at Guantanamo Bay, most voters aren't driven primarily by these issues (not to mention the electoral alternative is demonstrably worse to anybody who is unhappy about the lack of progress).

That pretty much leaves Health Care. Senator Obama campaigned hard against Clinton's individual mandate, making it the core of his Health Care persuasion message in the Iowa Caucuses. I vividly remember an Obama for America organizer on the phone with a voter, detailing how the individual mandate had made a mess of the healthcare system in her home state of Massachusetts. Shira detailed how the health care law that Governor Romney signed into law provided a profitable pool of clients to health insurers but alone was not enough to decrease the growth of policy premiums. Adopting the 1993 GOP health care plan did not do the Democrats any favors on the Hill, and it caused big problems for them with the voters.

Similarly, jettisoning the public option for fear that right-wingers would decry a "government take-over of health care" was an incredibly stupid decision. The public option was a well known piece of Obama's proposal, and was consistently referenced by activists, volunteers, and organizers in making persuasion pitches across the country. OFA invested in full ground campaigns in 18 battleground states, and a lot of persuasion messages based on the public option were disseminated at the grassroots. It is no surprise that voters feel confused that the signal accomplishment of Obama's first two years has gone in the opposite direction on two of the points which made it such a politically compelling plan: a) affordable health care coverage provided for the sake of patients instead of profits and b) a regulatory regime that focused on reigning in industry abuses instead of consumer compliance.

The numbers show that Democrats have lost the public's confidence on the issue of Health Care (Question 51 on page 22). Only 46% of adults say that Democrats are more likely to improve the Health Care system than Republicans, their lowest number since November of 1993 when the GOP had buried Clinton's Bill. Passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, for whatever reason, has had the same consequences for Democrats as a failure to pass a historic health care bill. I'm more inclined to believe that this drop in support has more to do with the gap between the legislation and Obama's proposal than purely ginned-up controversies like "death panels." It doesn't matter that only 28% of adults think that Republicans would do better; the GOP took away the main selling point for the generic Democrat.

It may be chance, but there is another number in this poll which is 47% which concerns health care: 47% of adults think that President Obama has made "a lot" or "some" "progress... in making health care affordable for all Americans" (Question 43 on page 20) versus 45% who say "not much" or "not at all." Yeah, the economy is important, but for a voter to have faith in Democrats to improve the economy, they would reasonably have to believe that Democrats have done pretty well in other policy areas. In the Health care arena, Democrats failed to implement the bells and whistles that made the plans attractive to independents and libertarian-inclined Republicans. Now they've lost the trust of these groups on the main concern of the day: Jobs.

Two more quick notes: (1) The NYT/CBS poll shows that 78% and 77% of adults would prefer if the two parties compromised more with one another, which would seem to be in blatant contradiction of the Pew/National Journal Oct. 4th poll which found that 49% of adults prefer leaders who "stick to their principles" versus "compromising." Question wording and survey structure probably makes the difference here. NYT/CBS asked in order "would you prefer if Democratic/Republican leaders compromised or stick to their positions?" whereas the Pew/NJ poll asked whether they prefer leaders who follow the two different strategies. Also, "principles" has a more loaded meaning than "positions" which equates roughly to "preferences". (2) This election year is still about anti-incumbency, and is certainly not about pro-GOP public policy preferences. An astonishing 59% of adults say that they would prefer a new congressman to their current one (31% would prefer incumbent), an unheard of split in Congressional polls, where the conventional wisdom is that citizens hate Congress but like their representative.

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