The Political Cost of Reform

March 13th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen, former and current Democratic pollsters, say that if Democrats ignore public opinion on health care reform, the “midterms will be costly.”  In their view, the Democrats’ “blind persistence in the face of reality threatens to turn this political march of folly into an electoral rout in November.”

Democrats face the historical fact that midterm elections usually result in losses for the president’s party and/or the party in power in Congress.  This is especially true during the midterm election of a president’s first term.  Moreover, many observers are making comparisons with 1994, one of the worst midterm elections in recent history for the ruling party, when during Clinton’s first term the Democrats lost 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate, with the Republicans gaining a majority in both houses.

It’s likely that the Democrats would have lost 25-30 seats in the House and about five in the Senate even without the health care reform controversy.  With health care added to the mix, many individual Democrats in Congress are feeling a lot of pressure.  Some have to face highly energized moderate and conservative voters in November, and a “yes” vote on the health care legislation isn’t going to help them.  Others are being pressured from the left and will pay a price for voting “no.”

In addition to the 435 House seats and 36 Senate seats up for grabs in November, 37 states will elect their governors.  There will also be many races for other state and local offices.  That could result in a nation-wide strengthening of Republicans.

According to Caddell and Schoen:

…the battle for public opinion has been lost. Comprehensive health care has been lost. If it fails, as appears possible, Democrats will face the brunt of the electorate’s reaction. If it passes, however, Democrats will face a far greater calamitous reaction at the polls. Wishing, praying or pretending will not change these outcomes.

Nothing has been more disconcerting than to watch Democratic politicians and their media supporters deceive themselves into believing that the public favors the Democrats’ current health-care plan. …

For Democrats to begin turning around their political fortunes there has to be a frank acknowledgement that the comprehensive health-care initiative is a failure, regardless of whether it passes.

There are views to the contrary, of course.  Joel Benenson, President Obama’s lead pollster, thinks Caddell and Schoen have it wrong.  He says,

…it is irresponsible, and wrong, for Schoen and Caddell to assert that a “solid majority of Americans oppose” health-care reform.

In fact, two recent polls, including one with the most negative ratings on health care, reveal through follow-up questions that a significant number of people who oppose current plans do so because they don’t go far enough rather than because they go too far. Not only is it absurd to suggest that these people would rise up against Democrats for passing the president’s plan, it is far more likely that they would join others who support the plan and punish those who tried to block reform or voted against it.

Benenson scores a few points, but overall one gets the sense that he’s whistling past the graveyard.

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3 Responses to “The Political Cost of Reform”

  1. Brianna |

    The House has been reluctant to shoo in the Senate bill in large part because once the House has passed the bill, the Senate will have no incentive whatsoever to amend it. The Senate tried to fix that by passing an “amendment bill”, but that got shot down. Apparently, “President Barack Obama must sign the broader Senate healthcare legislation before the upper chamber can take up changes demanded by the House,” or in other words, you cannot pass a bill to amend legislation that does not yet exist.

  2. Tom |

    This procedural mess is so complicated and looks so underhanded that I think there’s going to be a public outcry — and vengeance in November — if health care reform is rammed through this way. It’s no wonder that Pelosi wants people to focus on the outcome, not the process. In truth, she understands that as far as the people are concerned, it’s the process that is so distasteful. You can see that in polls which say that most people support many specific aspects of the legislation, but they don’t like the package (or the process) at all.

    The most ridiculous thing so far is there’s probably going to be a rule coming out of the Rules Committee that says if the rule is adopted (has to be a majority vote), that will be deemed as a vote for the Senate bill, or something like that. That’s so members can say they didn’t vote for the Senate bill, I suppose. No wonder 90 percent of the people are fed up with Congress.

  3. Tom |

    As I noted, Joel Benenson wrote a piece challenging the assessment of Caddell and Schoen. Douglas Schoen wrote another article in response to Benenson. You can read it here.

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