Remember when health care reform was widely popular? In 2008 and 2009 overwhelming majorities supported reform of the health care system, but CenteredPolitics.com warned that public opinion would swing against the effort based on an analysis of polls taken then, and polls taken during Bill Clinton's health reform effort.
If Republicans make re-litigating health care a major topic for this election, they will find that they are now pushing the health care boulder up the same hill that Clinton and then Obama tackled. They can't repeal without replacing but the public has no appetite for three more years of health care reform partisan squabbling.
The poll swung against ClintonCare for three predictable reasons, that were only stronger in 2009 when Obama started his effort, and all are still in effect today.
1) Complexity: Health care is far more complicated than the public's ability to engage public policy.
2) Inertia: The vast majority are satisfied with their own current arrangements.
3) Opportunity cost: Attention on health care takes attention away form the issue most people would like their leaders focused on like a laser beam, the economy and jobs.
Republican message discipline and repetition aside -- even Frank Luntz, Karl Rove and Fox News can't poison just any policy as the now popular auto industry bailout proves -- public opinion on health care dissipated for both Clinton and Obama due to these three elements. Both presidents saw support for health reform swing to opposition because they were not able to simply explain their proposals to a public that suspected they were trying to solve the wrong problem. Clinton's effort failed in Congress while Obama and the Democrats were able to drag their bill across the congressional finish line and reach an historic White House signing ceremony. But both presidents suffered historic defeats in the next congressional mid-term elections.
Repeal and Re-litigate?
The Supreme Court health care reform decision, by itself, offered a political boost to neither party. In our weekly handicapping of four wave election scenarios CenteredPolitics.com barely changed the chances for either party gaining the upper hand based on the ruling noting that Democratic policy gains were offset by a boost in Republican outrage. But this observation comes with a warning for Republican strategists: Their threat to make healthcare a rallying cry for the 2012 election would invite disaster.
The more Republicans dig in on "repeal" the more they invite questions about what they would replace the Affordable Care Act with and how they would go about passing a new health care reform bill. There are too many families benefiting from the Affordable Care Act today to suggest repeal without replace. Are Republicans really willing to kick millions of people under the age of 26 off of their parents health insurance coverage? Do Republicans really want to be the party that brought seniors the "doughnut hole" not once, but twice? [The "doughnut hole" is a very unpopular provision in Medicare Part D that you know nothing about unless you are a health policy wonk or one of the millions of seniors getting prescription medications covered under Medicare Part D.]
So "repeal" cannot stand without "replace" but Romney left himself open to ridicule by appearing to be reading from Obama's talking points as he promised his reform would allow people to keep their current coverage, extend access to affordable care for the uninsured, and cover families with pre-existing conditions. There is no reason to expect Republicans to benefit from points the Democrats were making for two years as their poll numbers plunged. Democrats should re-language the word "replace" as "re-litigate" because health care is complicated, and the past two efforts seemed to take forever.
The public wants a credible economic plan to get the economy moving in 2012 and 2013 and definitely does not want to re-live 2009 and 2010 battles all over again. If the Republicans believe the best way to jump start the economy is repeal of Obamacare, they will find this has partisan appeal but little broad support. Of course, the Chief Justice Roberts gave Republicans a talking point by labeling the penalties for not getting insurance a tax rather than a mandate. So Republicans may convince themselves that this strengthens their argument that Obama is a tax raiser, and makes repeal of Obamacare an economic issue. Realistically, there are not a lot of voters that have not heard Republicans accuse Obama of being a tax raiser that are likely to be moved by this supposedly fresh evidence.
The first polls that come out on the issue may or may not reflect this, but the more time Republicans spend on health care rather than the economy the greater the likelihood that the public will drift away as they did away from Clinton and Obama. The Democrats are already out with the correct talking points that to paraphrase say: Quit whining about issues that were settled in Congress and settled by the Supreme Court and lets come together to get Americans back to work.
This election is going to be won by the party that puts forward a comprehensive, credible, and convincing plan to get the economy moving. For right now that is still a jump ball.