The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tail Wagging Blue Dogs

Public Dissatisfaction with Healthcare Reform Bills May Be Democrats’ Own Making

As the Senate continues working long hours to reach a compromise bill, healthcare reform appears to be hanging on by the thinnest and most precipitous of threads. Joe Lieberman did his best to snip at the filaments by announcing his opposition to a plan backed by Majority Leader Harry Reid that would expand Medicare coverage to uninsured aged fifty-five and older. Lieberman insisted such an expansion would be too expensive, despite having personally endorsed this approach to the Connecticut Post in 2006.

A cross-ideological panel of Senators, specially convened by Reid, put forth the Medicare plan as an alternative to a “public option,” a notion wildly unpopular with conservatives yet championed by liberals. Alas, the more Reid struggles to make his bill more palatable, the more unpopular it becomes.

The latest Rasmussen poll shows Americans opposed to the bills currently pending in Congress by a whopping fifty-six percent to forty percent. Gallup calculates the split more modestly, at only forty-nine percent opposed to forty-four percent in favor. However, both polling organizations agree the clear trend is disapproval growing rather than shrinking.

Why such hostility to the plan?

Rasmussen notes that forty-seven percent of their respondents trust the private sector more than government to keep quality of care up, while nearly two-thirds say an increase in free market competition will do more than government regulation to reduce health care costs. “Differences like these help explain the sizable opposition to the health care plan,” Rasmussen concludes.

The conventional wisdom among Republican pundits and legislators is that President Obama has overreached, both with healthcare specifically and his agenda in general. Charles Krauthammer recently wrote in the Washington Post that Obama’s election was no national rejection of conservatism for progressive liberalism but rather an anomaly brought about by a public weary of war and frightened by a severe economic downturn. Krauthammer argues that Democratic woes result from Obama attempting to ram through policies that mainstream Americans do not support.

Polling data suggests this may be true where legislation like the stimulus package or bailouts for large financial and auto firms are concerns. Unlike them, however, healthcare reform remains popular in the abstract with most Americans.

Despite disdain for the House and Senate Bills, Rasmussen finds fifty-three percent of respondents believe the current U.S. healthcare system requires major changes and forty-two percent look to the federal government as the prime mover in this effort. Though fearful to many Blue Dog and moderate Democrats in Congress, a majority of American view even a public option in some form as an important component in any solution ultimately adopted.

For its part, Gallup notes a significant number of undecided respondents remain and they lean far more heavily toward Democrats and Independents than Republicans. If these undecided Americans broke toward the Congressional legislation, they would move its support into the majority.

Jonathan Chait, a Senior Editor at the New Republic, has been analyzing poll numbers and emerged with an even more hopeful observation. He posits that disapproval of healthcare legislation incorrectly implies universal hostility to reform because it combines the objections of both the right and far left, which stem from very different places. He found that those who think government involvement is appropriate or does not go far enough in proposed legislation outnumbers those who think it goes too far by about ten points.

Chait concludes the biggest obstacle for Democrats on healthcare reform is not a fundamental lack of public agreement with the bills’ aims but rather “public weariness with the endless legislative grind.”

Sheri and Allan Rivlin, co-editors at, offer yet another reason for widespread dissatisfaction over Congressional legislation. “The only message the public is receiving is that healthcare reform is bad. Turn on Fox News any given night and the message is this or that healthcare reform bill is bad. Turn on MSNBC any given night and the message is this or that healthcare reform bill is bad. Fox News blames all Democrats and MSNBC blames some Democrats.”

The answer, argues the Rivlins, is “more message discipline. We need more voices of support for the underlying effort at health care reform.” This solution might be laughed off as wishful thinking except that it is often offered, albeit in the form of blame for lack of leadership, by conservatives as well. In today’s Wall Street Journal, James Taranto writes, “Whose job was it to make ObamaCare popular? The politicians who backed ObamaCare, of course. If [a majority] of Americans oppose the Senate bill, it is because the Senators who support it have failed to make their case.”

Taranto goes on to laugh at liberal blogger Nate Silver who recently contended that Democrats would be “courageous” to vote for healthcare reform despite its apparent unpopularity. What is so courageous about defying the will of your constituents, Taranto rhetorically asks?

Yet, as the seeming polling paradox between healthcare reform in the abstract versus concrete suggests, this may be a case of the tail wagging the Blue Dogs. Moderate Democrats are timorous about supporting healthcare reform because it is unpopular with voters but it may well be so unpopular with voters because moderate Democrats are being so timorous about it.

Chait notes a point that I made some time ago. “Vulnerable Congressional Democrats may have individual interests in establishing their moderate bona fides by challenging their Party leadership. But they have a far stronger collective interest in passing a bill . . . 2009 [need not be a debacle] unless Democrats get bluffed into making it one.” The only way this will happen is if Blue Dogs start wagging their tails vigorously, to signal their approval of reform, instead of letting their tails wag them.

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