Say you're a Democratic member of Congress. You proudly cast your vote for Obamacare, you cheered when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed it as the achievement of a generation, and you scoffed at Republicans who vowed to repeal it. Now you're running for re-election, and a voter asks: What is the most important thing you've done in the past two years?
The answer should be easy. In passing the national healthcare bill, you accomplished something your party dreamed of for decades. It was your most important vote, and now is the time to take credit for it.
Except it's not.
Recently, top Democratic pollsters Celinda Lake and Stanley Greenberg conducted focus groups in Las Vegas, Nev.; Charlotte, N.C.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and St. Louis, Mo. They also conducted a national poll of 1,000 likely voters and an online poll of 2,000 more likely voters. They wanted to measure the public's feelings about Obamacare and help Democrats make an effective case for the bill they passed in March.
The researchers found what they call a "challenging environment," which is a nicer way of saying "disaster in the making." Voters simply aren't buying the Democratic case that healthcare reform will insure more than 30 million currently uninsured people and save money at the same time. And when they think about their own health care, people worry that reform will mean less, not more, availability of care, and at a higher cost.
Faced with that bad news, Lake and Greenberg came up with several recommendations for Democratic candidates. When talking about Obamacare, Democrats should "keep claims small and credible." They should promise to "improve" the law. They should avoid talking about policy and stick to "personal stories" of people who will benefit from Obamacare. And above all, the pollsters advise, "don't say the law will reduce costs and deficit."
It's a stunning about-face for a party that saw national health care as its signature accomplishment. "This is the first time we've seen from Democrats that they clearly understand they have a serious problem in terms of selling this legislation," says Republican pollster David Winston.
The reluctance to defend Obamacare as a cost-cutter and deficit-reducer is particularly telling. Wasn't that the No. 1 reason for passing the bill in the first place? "This legislation will ... lower costs for families and for businesses and for the federal government, reducing our deficit by over $1 trillion in the next two decades," President Obama said when he signed the bill into law on March 23. Now, Democrats are throwing that argument out the window.
It's no mystery why the party is in retreat. The public's disapproval of Obamacare hasn't changed in the past five months. The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows 51 percent of Americans oppose the new law, while 39 percent support it. A variety of pollsters -- Rasmussen, CNN, Pew and CBS News -- all find significantly more opposition than support. And there's not just opposition but enthusiasm for outright repeal. "Overall support for repeal has ranged from 52 percent to 63 percent since the law was passed by Congress in March," writes Rasmussen.
The story might be even worse than that for Democrats. Everyone knows the public's top issue is the economy. It has been since before Obama took office. So when the president and Democratic congressional leadership devoted a year to passing national health care, Republicans charged they were ignoring the public's wishes. Now, when Democrats admit that Obamacare won't cut costs or reduce deficits, they open themselves up to a more serious charge: They spent a year working on something that will actually cost jobs and make things worse. "Before, it looked like they were just on the wrong topic," Winston says. "Now, it makes it look like they're actually going to hurt the economy."
No wonder Obama and Democratic leaders are constantly saying they want to look forward, not backward. They don't want to dwell on ancient history, like the events of 2009 and early 2010. But there is no chance in the world Republicans will let them forget it.
Just a few months ago, Obama issued a public challenge to opponents who seek to dump Obamacare. "For those Republicans and folks who are on the 'repeal' platform, my attitude is, go for it," the president told a cheering crowd at a Democratic fundraiser in Florida on April 15. "I'll have that fight. We'll have that argument."
Well, the time to fight, the time to argue, has arrived. But with everything on the line, the president's party is trying to run away.
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