Republicans determined to follow the Democratic healthcare path

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Published: January 30,2011

Tags: Dr. William Martin Wiseman, MBJ column

Here we go again. With jobs and the economy clearly at the forefront of the issues troubling the average American, Congress is determined to descend into the fevered swamp of healthcare reform. What will be the political impact for Republicans?

Just last week a CBS News/New York Times poll revealed that 43 percent of those polled ranked job creation as the number one issue facing the new Congress. Dealing with healthcare legislation came in at just 18 percent. Now anyone who was even remotely keeping up with things over the first two years of the Obama administration will recall that a recession-riddled populace almost screamed out to the Democrats that jobs and the economy were the problem. They accused the Dems of being single-minded in their pursuit of Obama’s campaign promise to pass sweeping reforms to the nation’s healthcare system while ignoring the emergency levels of unemployment. No doubt the Republicans made great political hay by embellishing this argument in the 2010 mid-term elections that led to a Republican stampede into the majority in the United States House, and a narrowing of the Democratic majority in the Senate. So what do the Republicans do but wade right back into the same swamp.

This may prove to be a treacherous gambit, but certainly an interesting one to watch unfold. This is a two-sided controversy that is not simply either/or in nature, but it has the added tricky variable of time to complicate the mix. Yes, most observers would say that in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2, 2010, mid-term elections the Republicans occupied the political high ground as far as opposition to healthcare reform was concerned.

Recently, however, as often happens when events or government action loses its “shock value,” the inevitable swinging of the pendulum back toward the center gained speed. During the same week in which the newly-elected House of Representatives took up the repeal of the entire healthcare legislation as promised, a series of reputable polls hit the streets reflecting the public’s growing ambivalence to the “must repeal and repeal now” approach taken by the House. In a poll conducted by the Associated Press 41 percent of respondents remained opposed to the healthcare legislation while support among the public had grown to 40 percent. In dissecting the opposition, the data becomes more revealing. For example, among Republicans, opposition to the plan stood at 71 percent. However, among the key group of independents, opposition had fallen to 35 percent, and Democratic opposition came in at 19 percent. A Washington Post/ABC News poll produced similar results at 50 percent who continue to oppose and 45 percent who support the healthcare legislation. Of those who oppose, 33 percent favored outright repeal, 35 percent advocated partial repeal and 31 percent proposed to “wait and see.”  Thus, among the opposition group 66 percent stopped short of favoring outright appeal.

The vote in the U. S. House of Representatives was a resounding 245 to 189 for outright repeal. Only three Democrats voted to repeal, compared to 14 Democrats who voted against the original legislation. This effort has been labeled as merely symbolic since the Senate is not expected to pass the bill, and if it did President Obama would surely veto it. The crucial question for Republicans is “where do we go from here?”  All evidence points to a protracted two year long effort by the Republicans to methodically dismantle the healthcare legislation piece by piece. A number of reputable conservative pundits and their publications believe that in this way healthcare will be the political gift that keeps on giving all the way until the 2012 national elections.

There are others, however, who claim the growing variability of the winds of support for healthcare reform may cause the Republican strategy to backfire. First, they claim there is the matter of the “jobs first” sentiment among the majority of the people. Neutral observers point out that the Republicans may indeed be setting themselves up for the same accusations that the Democrats were forced to deal with in the recent mid-term elections. Adding to this is the potential for growing acceptance of the various provisions of the legislation that will not be completely implemented until 2014. Polls have already shown that there are several of the elements that the public is beginning to embrace. History shows that once an entitlement is extended by the government it is tremendously unpopular to retract it. Use Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and others as examples.

Always lurking in the background is the pure politics of the matter. Amazingly, political talk in Washington is already assessing the odds of the Democrats regaining the majority in the House since all that is needed is a relatively small 25 seat swing to accomplish this. Republicans, on the other hand, must play a cautious political hand to assure that they will, as many predict, gain a majority in the Senate, where the Democrats will have a whopping 21 seats up for grabs as opposed to 10 for the GOP. President Obama has strongly grabbed the jobs creation issue. What might the political impact be for the Republicans if they make a two-year-long dismantling of Obama healthcare legislation the centerpiece of their legislative effort?

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