Health On The Hill – August 25, 2010

Jackie Judd, Kaiser Family Foundation and Michael Crowley, TIME

As Congress’ August recess continues, lawmakers are finding the electorate to be quieter on the topic of health care than they were during last summer’s heated town hall meetings. Even so, the new health law continues to be a topic of discussion during the primary election season and the run-up to this fall’s mid-terms. Meanwhile, the challenge for the White House and some Democrats seems to be educating the public about how the provisions soon to take effect will work.

Listen to the interview (.mp3)

JACKIE JUDD: Good day. I’m Jackie Judd with Health on the Hill. This time last year, some lawmakers were home getting hammered at town hall meetings over the prospect of health care reform. This August, it is a much quieter electorate that politicians are facing back at home. Michael Crowley of Time Magazine reported in this week’s edition on the politics of health care, and he joins us now. Michael, thank you for being with us.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: Thanks for having me.

JACKIE JUDD: Why is health care reform, not at this moment anyway, the hot button issue that some were earlier predicting it would be?

MICHAEL CROWLEY: Right. I mean, right around the time health care passed or was on the brink of passage, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said every election this fall will be a referendum on this bill. And that is not the case, at least at the moment. I think the most obvious reason is that the economy has remained so unfortunately dismal, and people are just really focused on that front and center.

I think another reason is that although the polls are a bit mixed and at times contradictory, you know, the health care bill is not deeply unpopular. It is certainly not a winning issue for Democrats right now. It averages out with the public, more people opposing it than supporting it, but it is not one of these sort of two to one opposed issues that makes it a slam dunk for Republicans.

And finally, I think, just with the congressional debate having passed, it is not at the center of the news anymore. You don’t have all this kind of frenzied talk about death panels and the like. You just don’t have the ranker at the town halls because people aren’t kind of feeling the passions the way they were a year ago.

JACKIE JUDD: And there are some surveys, the Kaiser Family Foundation surveys among them, I should say, that do show that there is an uptick in the number of people who look on this health care reform bill more positively than they had.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: That’s right. And this is the one thing that gives Democrats in the White House some hope. I mean, the challenge for the White House seems to be educating people about the bill.

Health care advocates were frustrated to learn that quite a lot of Americans aren’t even aware that the measure passed, but they feel like if people learn that the bill did pass and they learn a little bit more about it, and incidentally some of its early provisions will be kicking in in late September, and they are really hoping to do an educational push on that front that people will become more supportive of the bill.

They realize for instance that the world didn’t end when Obama signed the bill in March and so they are hoping that those numbers will continue to move upward, the more people learn. The question is whether people will get good information or in the middle of partisan back and forth, a lot of misleading, confusing information, and it is hard to predict the effect that might have.

JACKIE JUDD: Do Democrats feel confident enough about the public’s view of this bill, this law I should say, at this point to actually be touting it when they are home for the August recess?

MICHAEL CROWLEY: I think at this point they are not. Again, it is a mixed bag. I think their approach is to say this bill is nothing to be afraid of, it’s not perfect, we are going to make it better, but they are not going around proclaiming sort of a new dawn, and I think also it differs from place to place.

I think in some more safer, liberal districts, you might have a little bit of a kind of triumphal, we did it, yes we can reteric about this law. I think in rural conservative swing districts, you will see Democrats keeping a much wearier distance, much more emphasis on the “this needs to be improved on, this is a start.” Of course, in some of those districts, Democrats didn’t vote for it in the first place, so it is a bit of a mixed bag.

JACKIE JUDD: And there were several primaries this week, one being in the state of Florida, gubernatorial primary, the Republican candidate who won, Rick Scott, last year launched a committee aimed directly at defeating the health care reform law, but the man he defeated, Bill McCollum, who had been in congress, is now the attorney general, also had expressed opposition to the reform bill.

So what does it say about the state of this law as part of the political debate at the moment?

MICHAEL CROWLEY: Right. The two of them really both had pretty good anti-ObamaCare credentials. It is a little bit of a wash in that case, it’s hard to say what that tells us. It’s possible that Scott had a somewhat more prominent profile in opposing the bill, but I think it remains to be seen, really, and again Democrats are at least thankful. Well let me say this, it shows that some Republicans really do still feel that health care is the path to victory, that what Mitch McConnell said back in the late winter, early spring, may hold to be true. But I think Democrats are hopeful that that is not panning out at this point.

JACKIE JUDD: You wrote in your article that to a degree, Republicans are a bit fractured about how to approach this issue moving forward, do they talk about repealing it? Do they talk about repealing and replacing it? Do they not fund certain elements of it? What is going on?

MICHAEL CROWLEY: Yes, it is kind of a strategic messaging battle that is unfolding. You have some of the more kind of purest conservative Republicans who are saying the message should just be very simple and stark: just repeal, undo it, and don’t serve up, don’t muddy the message, don’t seem wishy-washy, don’t really engage the Democrats too much on the substance of well we want to do this minor provision and how does it compare to yours?

For instance, the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank here in Washington, has launched a political arm which is running, doing national campaign work this fall, really pushing that seam of just pure repeal. But recently you saw some top Republicans in the House, Republican leader John Boehner, Eric Cantor, the Whip, finally discharge a petition which, if it got enough signatures, could force a vote on a repeal followed by a replace, a repeal and replace petition that would take a somewhat more moderate approach.

The reality is, though, that barring something almost unforeseeable in November, no repeal measures are going to survive a presidential veto. And Republicans, I think their better bet is probably to try to go after some of the money in the budget process and see if they can just make things a little more complicated and difficult. But fundamentally, Republicans are going to have to wait until the next presidential election if they want to have a big repeal push.

JACKIE JUDD: Okay, thank you very much, Michael Crowley of Time Magazine. I’m Jackie Judd.