Health Care Reform: Post-recess Politics

By Peggy Simpson
Live Journal
September 2, 2009

The good news in a CBS news poll is that Americans are confused by the debate about health care reforms.

Two-thirds of them say they think the debate is confusing and only 31 percent had a clear understanding of what’s proposed. That means the acrimonious Town Hall meetings may have muddied the waters but left people open to more conversation.

It puts the ball squarely back in President Obama’s court, in fact. Sixty percent said they didn’t think he had explained his health care reforms clearly.

No poll asked whether people think the political climate around health care will be affected by the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a key architect of reform plans whose skill at corralling votes from both sides of the aisle was unparalleled. That, however, was the talk of politicians and of health care reform advocates.

“I’ve gotten emails from groups saying ‘let’s pass this for Kennedy,'” said Judy Waxman, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center and key strategist on health care reforms. The saturation coverage of all-things-Kennedy “did seem to change the discussion from the Town Halls. It was a way to shift the conversation.” Cameras were diverted from the screamers at Town Hall meetings who ranted against socialism, abortion, or any government spending while talking very little about the specifics of health care bills.

“But I think next week [when Congress returns] will tell us a lot,” Waxman said.

Diana Zuckerman, a former health care investigator in Congress who heads the National Research Center for Women & Families, also is closely monitoring the reform bills. “I think the death of Teddy might be a rallying cry for liberals who might have been on the sidelines too much. It might get them organized. But I but don’t think it will have a direct impact on senators,” she said.

Although late August Town Hall meetings apparently were civil and attuned to real discussions of health care plans, Zuckerman said the earlier high-voltage showdowns “obviously have been a disaster for health care reform. And we shouldn’t think for a second that this is spontaneous backlash by individuals who watched on TV and decided to get involved.

“This was a very well orchestrated effort to help destroy health care reform. These were the same people who were involved in strategizing the Swift-Boating of [former presidential nominee] John Kerry.” These opponents, she said, “for the most part were not the same forces that succeeded in killing health care reform in the 1990s. That was a lot of companies; this time, it is an ideological confrontation, not a difference of priorities of business versus the public good.”

And does that mean it will be easier to reverse? “It should be possible to undo this damage,” she agreed, but it came at a time when there already were serious schisms within the Democratic Party with liberals “very concerned about Obama not championing health care reform the way they wanted him to.”

And who can heal these divisions or carry on the Teddy Kennedy baton on health care reform?

“I think it has to be Obama,” Zuckerman said. None of the people working for him have the stature to do this.”

If Hillary Clinton were still in the Senate, she could have reached across the aisle in a similar way that Kennedy did. But she’s not there. The powerhouses who are there-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Commerce Chair Henry Waxman and others-know the issues backwards and forwards but may not have that magic ability to shape a compromise. They can be effective in rallying their own troops, however.

That leaves the next big question a two-parter. Can Obama shape a new beginning on health care? And can Democratic leaders deliver a party-line vote to push through the reforms even if only a smattering of Republicans go along?

Several other recent polls shed light on the challenges ahead. One showed that grass roots Republicans thought the GOP members of Congress were very much out of step with the people: they didn’t think they were conservative enough. Another poll of grass roots Republicans showed they wanted their elected officials to resist Democratic entreaties to go along with reform packages. Democrats, on the other hand, overwhelmingly want a bipartisan effort.

And, in something of a surprise, some polls showed growing support for a government-run health care plan that would compete with private sector ones. That was especially true when the poll’s question used the word “choice”-as in: do you favor giving folks a choice between a government run plan and private plans.

Obama, meanwhile, seemed to be taking steps toward confronting the nettle of health care reform.

In his Saturday radio address, he took on the false claims directly: “Let’s start with the false claim that illegal immigrants will get health insurance under reform. That’s not true. Illegal immigrants would not be covered. That idea has never even been on the table,” he said.

“Some are also saying that coverage for abortions would be mandated under reform. Also false. When it comes to the current ban on using tax dollars for abortions, nothing will change under reform,” he said. “And as every credible person who has looked into it has said, there are no so-called ‘death panels’-an offensive notion to me and to the American people. These are phony claims meant to divide us.”

No, he said, this is not about government taking over health care. “I no sooner want government to get between you and your doctor than I want insurance companies to make arbitrary decisions about what medical care is best for you, as they do today. As I’ve said from the beginning, under the reform we seek, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your private health insurance plan, you can keep your plan. Period.”

And he wasn’t letting go of a public option plan, which he called “one idea among many to provide more competition and choice, especially in the many places around the country where just one insurer thoroughly dominates the marketplace. This alternative would have to operate as any other insurer, on the basis of the premiums it collects. And let me repeat-it would be just an option; those who prefer their private insurer would be under no obligation to shift to a public plan.”

True, he said, the “insurance companies and their allies don’t like this idea, or any that would promote greater competition. I get that.”

Sounds like the beginning of a new beginning.

Stay tuned.