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Both parties should heed warnings in poll results

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, February 14, 2010

There are warning signs to both parties in the latest Post-ABC News poll, and this should be a help as President Obama tries to spur a rebirth of bipartisanship in Washington.

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Democrats have not felt secure in their congressional majorities since Scott Brown beat their candidate last month in the special election for the Massachusetts Senate seat. But the poll finding that Democrats have lost all of the 12-point lead over the Republicans they enjoyed four months ago -- and now are tied with the GOP at 46 percent each in support -- certainly confirms that more losses may come in the November midterm election.

Yet the voters are also signaling to the GOP that its current tactics could cost its candidates a golden opportunity. For all their gains on key issues in comparison to Obama and the Democrats, congressional Republicans are seen by the voters as more recalcitrant in general and more out of step in simply trying to shelve health-care reform.

The poll found the country split on the somewhat different health-reform bills passed late last year by the House and Senate over almost unanimous Republican opposition. The bills were supported by 46 percent in the poll and opposed by 49 percent. But those adamantly opposed were almost twice as numerous as those strongly in support.

The poll identified the cost and complexity of the proposed plans as their greatest vulnerabilities. But when asked about key elements of the proposals, large majorities favor requiring insurers to cover all applicants regardless of their health histories, requiring employers to cover all full-time employees and insisting that all individuals have health insurance.

When asked whether they want Washington to keep trying to pass comprehensive health-care reform, large majorities of both Democratic and independent voters, and more than two out of five Republicans, said yes -- an overall majority of almost 2 to 1 supporting Obama's plea that Congress not walk away from the issue.

If the lessons of the poll are really absorbed on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and on both sides of the aisle, then more could come from the Feb. 25 White House health-care summit -- and other Obama bids for bipartisanship -- than many skeptical Washington voices are suggesting.

The politicians in this city are more likely to respond to fear than to Obama-style hope, and that is why this poll and others like it may be so useful. The survey found that only 36 percent of voters say that they are inclined to reelect their current representative in November, while 56 percent say that they will look around for someone else to support. The last time surveys registered this high a degree of dissatisfaction with incumbents in Congress was in 2006, the year Democrats toppled Republicans from control. The only previous time was in 1994, the year the GOP ended the Democrats' 40 years of running things.

It would be helpful for Obama's aides to scatter copies of this poll around Blair House when the legislators of both parties gather there on Feb. 25. I would also hope that Obama suggests that the opening point of discussion should be the proposal, embodied in both of last year's bills and also in many of the rejected Republican schemes, that individual states, groups of states or the nation as a whole create exchanges where individuals and firms could comparison-shop for the best buys in health insurance.

Given the heavy load of partisanship and distrust that surrounds health-care reform, it is important that the summit take a substantive step on which the parties can agree. Creating the exchanges would be such a step and would signal a commitment to tackle more controversial decisions, rather than abandoning the effort.

This project is not hopeless, especially if politicians fear for their political lives.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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