By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, March 21, 2010; B03
After more than a year of proposals, protests and political rhetoric, President Obama's health-care plan is headed to a final showdown in the House this weekend. And although most Americans -- and probably a few members of Congress -- have little idea of what exactly is in the bill, the mythology about how we got here is already well on its way to being constructed. Here are a few misconceptions about the health-care reform battle that should be busted before the history is written:1. This could have been a bipartisan bill.
Very unlikely. Bipartisanship in politics is built on two pillars: trust and mutual benefit. And from the start it was apparent that both were in short supply in the 111th Congress.
While Obama's election -- and Democratic gains in the House and the Senate -- in 2008 were heralded as a new beginning in politics, the distrust and partisanship that had typified Congress in the recent past left a bitterness that no election could heal. Obama's efforts to bridge those gaps (often more personality-driven than policy-focused) came up short, with Republicans wary of being made into political pawns.
Nowhere was that wariness on better display than during last month's televised health-care summit at Blair House. Republicans came armed for rhetorical battle -- complete with copies of the massive bill as props -- rather than bipartisan compromise. That meeting also made plain the wide policy gap between the two parties; Democrats were focused primarily on expanding coverage, while Republicans were fixated on controlling costs.
Congressional Republicans also made an early strategic calculation that unified opposition to the president's overall agenda was their best course of action. The fact that just three Senate Republicans -- including one, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who later become a Democrat -- backed Obama's economic stimulus package was an omen that bipartisanship on health care was a pipe dream.2. Democrats gave up on the public option too soon.
To this day, the left insists that if the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stood strongly behind the creation of a public option -- a government-run health-care plan -- it could muster the necessary votes in the Senate. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is even sponsoring an ad that plucks public statements from a handful of Senate Democrats -- Mark Warner (Va.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) among them -- to prove that a majority could be built around the measure.
But the fact is that expressing support for the public option is a consequence-free win-win situation for Senate Democrats. Politicians know that a vote on the controversial measure simply won't happen because neither the White House nor the congressional leadership has any desire to bring it back up. As a result, these lawmakers are free to voice their strong support for the public option while never having to worry about the political consequences of casting a vote in favor of it.3. Scott Brown changed everything.
Yes and no. From a procedural standpoint, the stunning upset by Brown, a Republican, in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts special election forced Democrats to reassess their plan for passing the health-care overhaul; they drew a road map heavy on parliamentary procedures that led us down the current path. Without 60 seats, Democrats are unable to break Republican filibusters and therefore have been forced to slow-walk legislation that they had been on the precipice of passing before Brown's win.
But the meat of the bill -- an attempt at broad reform -- never really changed. From the start, the president made clear that nibbling around the edges of health care didn't interest him. Brown's victory did little to change Obama's "go big or go home" approach, even if it did raise the electoral stakes heading into the midterm elections this fall.
The psychological effect on Democrats of Brown winning the late Ted Kennedy's seat is harder to gauge. Democratic strategists fretted that the loss of the seat would lead to a rush of retirements on their side, a fear that hasn't been entirely borne out as the retirements have come more in dribs and drabs.4. The public is undecided about health-care reform.
Divided? Yes. Undecided? No. Poll after poll shows that people, by and large, have made up their minds about where they come down on this bill. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released last week, 36 percent said they believed Obama's health-care plan was a good idea while 48 percent called it a bad one, leaving just 15 percent without an opinion.
A broad look at the survey data on the support and opposition for overhauling health care -- helpfully compiled by the good folks at Pollster.com -- shows a similar, steady trend line. Opposition runs in the upper 40s, support in the low to mid-40s and undecided respondents in the low single digits. Those numbers haven't moved much since August 2009, when the raucous receptions that members of Congress received at town hall meetings across the country signaled growing leeriness toward the legislation.
The American public is deeply divided over this bill -- what's in it, what it will do, whether it's the right thing -- but not at all unclear on how they feel about it.5. How lawmakers vote on health-care reform will be the top issue in the 2010 midterm elections.
Health care will indeed be an important issue in November, but it will be secondary to Americans' concerns about jobs and the economy. In a Gallup poll conducted this month, 31 percent of people identified unemployment as the most pressing issue facing the country, while 24 percent named the "economy in general." Twenty percent chose health care.
In the immediate aftermath of passage (or failure) of a reform bill, health care is likely to experience a bit of a bump in terms of voter priorities in polls, but it will probably recede as anxiety about the economy and the job market reasserts itself. Historically, when the economy is struggling (or is perceived to be struggling), all other issues take a back seat -- hence the successful "it's the economy, stupid" slogan of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992.
Democrats will try to sell the health-care legislation as a jobs bill by emphasizing the benefits it offers for small businesses. Republicans will cast health-care reform as the biggest piece of evidence that the Obama administration took its eye off the economy at a critical time. Either way, they'll be talking economy first and second (and probably third) on the campaign trail this fall.
Chris Cillizza is a national politics reporter for The Washington Post and the author of The Fix, a politics blog at http://www.washingtonpost.com/thefix.