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Savvy Dems Reject GOP 'Advice' on Health Reform | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Savvy Dems Reject GOP 'Advice' on Health Reform

To hear Republican congressional leaders and strategists tell it: If Democrats pass health care reform, the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Obama is toast.

Seriously, the message from the Grand Old Partisans is that voting to give Americans greater access to medical care is the political equivalent of a suicide pact.

The theme was repeated again and again in weekend interviews by top Republicans.

To wit:

SENATE REPUBLICAN CONFERENCE CHAIR LAMAR ALEXANDER, R-Tennessee, said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation: "I think it's a political kamikaze mission to insist on this." The frequently-rejected president contender predicted a "political wipeout" for Democrats of they use their House and Senate majorities to approve the legislation.

HOUSE MINORITY LEADER JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, told CNN that if health-care reform passes: "I think we have a chance at winning Republican control of the House."

UNINDICTED CO-CONSPIRATOR KARL ROVE told FOX he was certain that: "If they pass this thing, I think (Democrats) lose the House of Representatives this fall."

Wow, talk about bipartisanship!

When was the last time you saw members of one political party try so hard to help the other party retain its congressional majorities.

The generosity of Alexander, Boehner and Rove with their advice is simply remarkable.

Here you have three men who have spent their adult lifetimes trying to get and hold power and influence in Washington willingly sacrificing it in order to counsel Democrats against making a move that would lead to a "political wipeout."

What could have gotten into Alexander, Boehner, Rove and their compatriots? How could these former party of "no" men have suddenly become so very determined to tell the Democrats how to retain control of the House and Senate?

Hold it!

You don't think that these Grand Old Partisans might be playing a cynical game do you?

No, they wouldn't be suggesting that enacting health care legislation would harm Democrats if order to prevent a sea-change moment that might actually help the Democrats, would they?

Why, what could possibly possess so innocent and giving a soul as Karl Rove to engage in such a stunt?

Could it be poll numbers?

But don't the polls all show that Americans are absolutely determined to maintain a health-care system that fails to insure roughly 45 million citizens, under-insures another 45 to 50 million, puts caps on the amount of care cancer victims can receive, discriminates against older women and denies coverage to people with pre-existing conditions? Aren't Americans adamantly opposed to getting more access to more care at a lower cost?

Er, not so much.

Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster who has worked closely with the White House, explained over the weekend why Democrats might not think it is "kamikaze mission" to enact health-care reform -- even an imperfect reform that will require significant improvement in the years to come.

As Benenson notes:

No pollster, including me, could look at the recent data and responsibly say anything other than that the American public is closely divided when it comes to supporting or opposing various health-care plans. The most recent Washington Post poll (from Feb. 10) shows a narrow gap between support and opposition: 46 percent favor; 49 percent oppose. This data is consistent with eight of the 12 most recent independent public polls reported on Pollster.com.

Here's one reason why Democrats might not want to take advice from Rove and his colleagues: Surveys tell us that a significant number of Americans are unaware of what's in the health-care legislation. It's not exactly their fault. The process has been muddled, prone toward complex compromises and at times wholly dysfunctional. That's created predictable confusion, and a tendency toward concern and opposition.

When Americans are informed about core components of the legislation as it currently stands, however, approval ratings rise. In fact, polling data (even from polls that Republicans are citing selectively) shows that the pieces of the plan -- protection for Americans with preexisting conditions, adjustments to address the drug coverage gap for seniors, the development of insurance exchanges to allow small business owners, farmers and others who need coverage to negotiate for affordable coverage from private insurance companies -- are extremely popular. Support ranges from 61 percent to as high as 81 percent.

Here's another reason why Democrats might not want to take their political cues from the Republicans: Polling tells us that much of the discomfort with the health-care reform legislation that is currently advancing is not being expressed by Tea Partisan dead-enders who are as certain that anything the government touches go bad as they are that Barack Obama was born in Indonesia, or Kenya or, well, one of those "ends in a vowel" countries. (And don't say that "America" ends in a vowel because, uh, well, you know, "United States" doesn't.)

A lot of the discomfort with the legislation comes from "party of yes, hell yes" Americans who think the proposals advanced by the president fail to go far enough.

Benenson points out that:

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.

Let's take the CNN poll from early January -- the most negative independent poll on health care and one that predated President Obama's proposal. Only 40 percent supported the bills passed by Congress, while 57 percent opposed them. But in a crucial follow-up question, a net of 10 percent of all Americans opposed the bill because it was "not liberal enough." If one makes the reasonable assumption that these people are far more likely to side with supporters of the president's plan than with Republicans who are obstructing it, the results would show that 50 percent favor the plan or want a broader one, while only 45 percent oppose the plan.

Similarly, a more recent poll by Ipsos showed that among the 47 percent who initially said they "opposed health care," more than a third of opponents said they "favor" reform overall but think the current plan doesn't go "far enough." Shifting these people to the group in "favor of reform" would reduce opposition to current reforms to under 40 percent.

Of course, Benenson is a Democrat.

Critics of the plan are free to reject his analysis and his numbers -- even the numbers that come from independent polls that the Republicans have been citing.

But it should not come as much of a surprise that, instead of following self-serving "advice" from Lamar Alexander and John Boehner, most Democrats have chosen to go elsewhere for counsel.

Nor should anyone be surprised if, when all is said and done, Benenson might turn out to be right when he argues that that:

In politics, new information is always the most potent. When it comes to health care and insurance, once reform passes, the tangible benefits Americans will realize will trump the fear-mongering rhetoric opponents are stoking today.

And when that reality kicks in, the political burden will shift from those who supported the plan to those who voted against banning insurance companies from denying coverage to those who are sick, against the tax credits for small businesses offering coverage, or against helping seniors on Medicare pay less for prescription drugs.

It is no accident that Republican leaders are warning Democrats of dire political consequences if health reform passes.

But there is every reason to believe that for Republicans, the negative consequences will be their own.

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