Setting the Stage for a Midterm Showdown

By Dick Polman, Philadelphia Inquirer - January 3, 2010

Farewell, 2009. Was that a fun year in politics, or what?

Birthers and Blue Dogs and polls, oh my. A new president under fire from the left and right. A Republican Party galvanized by the audacity of "no."

A gritty and grinding legislative process that makes you pine for the manufacture of sausages. An ex-vice president who makes less sense than your average homeless babbler. And, to top things off, a zealot with murderous underpants.

But '09 was mere foreplay compared to what partisan delights await us in '10. This is an election year in Washington. The Democrats have to defend their House and Senate majorities amid a recession and two wars (three, if you count our covert maneuverings in Yemen). Most important, if Democrats hope to blunt their likely congressional losses, they'll have to frame a positive message on health-care reform - because, regardless of whether President Obama inks a bill into law, this issue will be huge in November.

It's a no-brainer that the Democrats will get beaten up in '10; since 1954, virtually every president has seen his party allies lose House seats in the first midterm election. Ronald Reagan finished his first year in office with a 49 percent job-approval rating in the Gallup poll; 11 months later, in November 1982, at a time of 10 percent unemployment, Reagan's Republicans lost 26 House seats. Obama, whose year-end Gallup job-approval rating was 51 percent, should consider himself fortunate if the House Democrats lose only 26 seats; after all, they stay in power as long as they cough up fewer than 41.

To minimize the damage, however, Democrats will need to rally voters. Midterm elections are typically low-turnout affairs; the Republican base is now far more motivated to show up, in part because anger is a great motivator. And the GOP is deft at tapping fear and anger for political profit. The party is peppering its grassroots supporters with e-mails that equate health-care reform with domestic apocalypse - "America cannot survive," "a threat to our freedoms," "government takeover," that kind of stuff - along with pledges to "repeal" any enacted reforms. This is the party's message blueprint for the '10 elections.

Actually, some aspects of that message are way funnier than Robin Williams. The GOP that is now crying about big spending and big-government expansion is the same GOP that enacted a deficit-busting Medicare drug-prescription benefit in 2003. Unlike the Democrats' deficit-neutral health-reform plan, which will be financed with spending offsets and new taxes, the GOP's drug-benefit law will spread half a trillion bucks in red ink during its first 10 years. As Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch recently acknowledged, back in the GOP's power heyday, "it was standard practice not to pay for things."

But I digress. Given that the angry right won't care a whit about such Republican hypocrisy, the Democrats would be wise to get equally aggressive (as opposed to what they often tend to do, which is whine and quake). To rally their own voters - most notably, the left-leaning independents who have been disenchanted by the long legislative slog, and the liberals who naively believe that imperfect reform is a good reason for staying home - Democratic messengers will need to affirmatively sell the health-care overhaul.

This task would not necessarily be as impossible as some assume. In December, a bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reported that although only 35 percent of respondents had positive feelings about the Democrats, just 28 percent felt that way about the Republicans. And even though polls typically report majority opposition to health reform, that's misleading. Many of the naysayers are liberals who dismiss the Democratic proposals as insufficiently ambitious; a CNN poll last month found that only 39 percent of respondents viewed the reforms as "too liberal."

The Democratic opportunity is obvious. Highlight the positive (and broadly popular) aspects of health reform, and paint the Republicans as obstructionists standing in the way.

One party voted to prohibit health-insurance companies from stiffing the millions of Americans with preexisting conditions. The other party voted to perpetuate that discrimination.

One party voted to prohibit health-insurance companies from skewering customers who get sick, either by hiking their premiums or dumping them. The other party voted to perpetuate those practices.

One party voted to financially help 30 million Americans who today can't afford to buy health insurance in the private sector. The other party voted to keep those Americans uninsured.

One party voted to make it easier for small-business owners to insure their workers with the help of tax credits and vouchers. The other party voted no.

One party believes health security for all Americans is a fundamental, inalienable right, just as it is everywhere else in the Western democratic world. The other party does not believe in health security - which is no surprise, given that it once voted against Social Security for seniors.

That's the gist of the best possible Democratic message. And if Obama puts his signature on a reform law this winter, another subplot comes into play. Newt Gingrich predicted last weekend that "every Republican running in '10 and again in '12 will run on an absolute pledge to repeal this bill." But do the Republicans really think they can reap political rewards by vowing to repeal a law that creates health security and bans insurance-company abuses?

Perhaps so, if the tea-party voters dominate the turnout. Ultimately, it all depends on which party controls the narrative. So, welcome to another perversely entertaining year. Let the war of spin begin.


E-mail Dick Polman at


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