Now that House Republicans are moving to pass a bill fully repealing last year's health care overhaul, the debate has turned into a Bizarro-world negative image of last year's biggest legislative fight. Before the PPACA's passage, Republicans were arguing that the bill shouldn't become law because it wouldn't reduce the deficit and it would cut Medicare. They were also fairly effective in criticizing Democrats for focusing on an unwieldy and unpopular piece of legislation rather than on finding ways to encourage job creation.
These days, as the House moves towards a repeal vote on January 12, Democrats are using a strikingly similar set of talking points against Republicans. They're warning that repealing the law would cut Medicare benefits and add to the deficit. And they're complaining that Republicans are pushing a base-driven repeal effort when they should be focusing on—you guessed it—creating jobs.
Democrats have also kept one weapon from their pre-passage rhetorical arsenal: the argument that voters will finally begin to support the law if reminded of some of the specific, popular consumer benefits it contains. For example, take a look at this Politico report on Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, who earlier this week sent a letter to his fellow Democrats urging them to defend the law:
Welch sees it as a crucial opportunity for Dems to hammer home what consumers like about reform. "The health care debate is going from the general 'Obamacare' rhetoric to specific, real benefits for real people," he told PULSE in an interview. "We're going to fight like hell to preserve those benefits."
In column earlier this week titled "Bring on the health-care fight," Eugene Robinson said much the same thing: Repealing the unpopular law, he wrote, "sounds fine, until you actually look at the pieces. Already in effect are parts of the reform package that no self-interested politician is going to vote to take away."
Liberal confidence about the law's prospects for popularity has often soared higher than warranted. Robinson's basic argument—that because certain elements of the bill poll well, Democrats ought to be able convert those warm feelings into popularity for the whole legislation—was made frequently before the law passed, but it wasn't all that successful. As Philip Klein reminds us, "Democrats tried to make these arguments throughout the health care debate and the 2010 elections to no avail." And a big part of that, I suspect, is that it was an attempt to paper over the law's trade-offs.
Think of it this way: After support dipped for Bush's proposed Social Security overhaul, it probably would have been possible to poll specific elements—stabilizing Social Security's finances, offering more choice and control—and find majority support, especially with the right phrasing. Yet I suspect that most liberals opposed to Bush's plan would have responded that regardless of how the public views specific parts of the proposal, it's the entire package that matters, and, on the whole, the entire package doesn't have enough support.
And that's essentially what's going on with the health care law: There may be specific provisions that people like, but when you look at the law as a whole, there's more opposition than support—a fact that has been consistently true since sometime during the summer of 2009. Polling isn't as thorough on the question repeal, but over the last few months, Rasmussen has put out several polls showing support at or near 60 percent. Democrats may see this bill as an opportunity to defend the law, but if their history with this rhetorical tactic is any guide, it won't work very well, and for obvious reasons: The law, as a whole, just isn't popular, and a large portion of the public would like to see it repealed. The House repeal bill is a straightforward way to take advantage of these facts.