WASHINGTON — President Obama asked for a national debate on health care, and he got his wish. The problem for Democrats, and consequently for the President, is that the national debate is still going on.
Technically called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and often described as Obamacare, the overhaul of the American health-care system was signed into law almost exactly four years ago. Yet the debate rages on — and will continue to do so if GOP lawmakers, strategists, and potential presidential candidates have their way.
Other issues in American life have persisted politically for more than four years — slavery, of course, monopolized the political debate for a third of a century, and Vietnam for a decade. But such endurance is rare. In ordinary circumstances, the likelihood of an issue with high political attention in April remaining at the top of the mind in November is small.
Republicans are wagering that health care will be different, and they surely take comfort in polls that show continuing public skepticism — if not hostility — toward the health-care law. Overall, Americans disapprove of the 2010 act by a 54-to-43 margin, a range that in the Gallup poll has remained generally consistent since last fall.
Disapproval of the health-care law varies substantially by party identity. Look at those Gallup numbers and you will see that Republicans are as much as 17 times more likely to disapprove of the law than are Democrats.
In ordinary times, Democrats might take comfort from those findings. But Gallup also tells us that independents are as much as five times more likely to oppose the law as Democrats. That’s trouble.
But it is not a surprise. Democrats have their talking points ready. They are saying — though not everybody is believing — that in this fall’s midterm congressional elections, they can run on Obamacare, not run away from it.
Here’s the argument, provided in an interview last week with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the Democratic National Committee:
“Are Republicans really going to ask 8 million people to give back their insurance and to take their kids under 26 off their health care and to deny affordable coverage to people with pre-existing conditions? They’re obsessed with opposing the President, even if opposing the President hurts the middle class.”
Democrats hope opposition to the health-care law will wither, much the way opposition to Social Security disappeared. The GOP ran against Social Security in the 1936 election and the party’s nominee, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas, lost all but two states.
The difference, however, is that virtually everyone paid into Social Security, giving almost all Americans a stake in the system, and eventually, benefits from the system. That advantage is not replicated in the health-care law.
Health care raises a vital strategic question for the GOP: Might it be better for Republicans to fall just short of a Senate majority in November than to win a majority in the chamber?
The answer may be yes. If they inch up against Democrats but don’t seize Senate control, they’ll have little hope of overturning the Obama plan. Or given the President’s certain veto of any repeal legislation, Republicans will have little hope of substantially weakening or defunding it.
They will force Democratic senators who supported the legislation to squirm as they affirm their 2010 vote and leave the health-care plan in place as a pinata. That’s something they can bludgeon to their advantage in the 2016 primaries and the presidential election.
Republicans can win by losing. Democrats can lose by winning. It’s a cynical outlook, to be sure. But it is perfectly suited to an age of cynicism.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org