The White House has been trying to highlight popular parts of the health care law as they go into effect. Last week, it was $250 prescription drug rebate checks that Democrats hope will improve seniors’ opinions of the law.
Next month, there will be a new high-risk coverage pool for people who are uninsured because of pre-existing conditions.
Still, the overall plan remains unpopular, and Republicans are campaigning on a promise to repeal the law and replace it with something less costly.
But when it comes to repeal – well, Democrats think that could help them, too.
Both Sides Now
President Obama has a two-track strategy on health care – point out the appealing parts of the law and point a finger at the people he says would take them away.
“Some of the folks who were against health reform in Congress, they still think that none of this should have happened. They don’t think you should be getting these rebates – don’t think we should be closing this doughnut hole,” he told an audience last week. “In fact, you have an entire party out there that’s running on a platform of repeal.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is trying to get Republicans on the record about repeal. And Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the head of the Democrats’ House campaign committee, is happy to talk about his opponents’ position.
“The No. 1 priority of the Republicans going into this election is to repeal health care reform altogether and essentially hand the keys to the health care system back over to the insurance industry,” he says. “I think that this Republican strategy of ‘let’s repeal health care reform’ is a failed strategy.”
But Republicans don’t think so. And they’re not backing off.
“I think it’s very important that this bill, which is going to cut half a trillion out of Medicare and really is going to add tremendously to the federal bureaucracy and put the government in charge of your health care, needs to be repealed,” says Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan.
Hundreds of other Republicans running for office this year – incumbents and challengers – have signed a pledge at repealit.org, including Carly Fiorina in California, Roy Blunt in Missouri and David Vitter in Louisiana.
So, Democrats and Republicans think repeal will work for them. But both sides can’t be right.
“As always, public opinion is complicated,” says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who has been doing surveys on health care since 1991.
“As you look at multiple public surveys, people still say they oppose the health care bill passed by President Obama. What’s not clear is what happens next,” he says.
McInturff points out that in many conservative districts, Democrats who voted for the health care bill will have trouble this fall – and, as a metaphor for big spending and intrusive government, health care is unbeatable.
But that’s quite different from saying what comes next should be repeal.
Taking Benefits Back
Obama’s top pollster, Joel Benenson, points to something else voters say about health care.
“When you ask people looking forward, now that the bill has passed, ‘What do you want to happen?’ ” he says, “clear majorities say, ‘Give the law a chance to work – make changes if needed.’ Only about 4 in 10 say ‘repeal it.’ ”
Former White House communications director Anita Dunn, who is running an independent campaign to boost the health care law, is counting on something that’s worked in the past: Once the government confers a new benefit, it is very hard to take it back.
“The Republicans put themselves into a box. Their base wants repeal, but the broader group of voters that they have to appeal to want those consumer protections,” Dunn says. “What are the Republicans going to do if they repeal this? Make senior citizens return their $250 checks?”
‘If Not This, What?’
McInturff acknowledges that the political landscape for health care has shifted. Now that the bill is the law, Republicans have to adapt.
“And so I do think for the Republicans it creates an enormous kind of obligation to say, ‘If you were going to start over, what would you do differently?'” he says. “Republicans have to put more on the table in terms of: ‘If not this, what?’ ”
Republicans did try to put something on the table. Earlier this month, they unveiled their own bill to replace what they call “Obamacare.” But it got relatively little attention. Too many other things were going on.
“If there had not been this oil spill, my guess is we’d have a long-continued debate about health care – Was it good or bad?” McInturff says. “But that conversation has been kind of squooshed. And it’s a good reminder of the reasons why it’s very hard to sustain debate in this country, because we kind of move on to the next problem.”