Anyone who says they know with any degree of certainty the short and/or long-term political impacts of the health care/insurance reform legislation is guessing or, depending upon your politics, thinking wishfully about the party they favor. There is no sure fire way to predict the impact. Lots of people are riled up for sure, but many also consider passage of the bill the great accomplishment since Social Security. The truth is no one knows the political impacts yet and with seven months to go until November, lots of things can shape the mid-term.
Having said that, I’ll venture two predictions and the first is easy because it is already happening.
After any big, prolonged political brawl, and this was one of the biggest and longest in many years, its fascinating to watch the conventional wisdom – the CW – shift. After the special Senate election for Ted Kennedy’s old seat was won by an anti-Obamacare candidate, Scott Brown, the wisdom from the Beltway wise guys was simple: the whole blood mess was toast, Obamacare was dead, DOA, nada, ain’t gonna happen.
CW held that the very best the president could do was cut his loses, trim his sails, buck up and take a beating. Apparently even Rahm Emanuel was counseling a strategic retreat. But wait. Hear that? That would be the sound of the CW creaking around and changing direction.
Polls taken since Sunday’s dramatic vote in the House are already showing a swing in favor of the controversial legislation. Stay tuned for even more of a bounce despite the attorneys general in a Baker’s Dozen (or more) states, including Idaho and Washington, promising legal action. Meanwhile, the retribution begins with the former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, suggesting what was once described as Obama’s Waterloo is becoming the GOP equivalent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
Fearless prediction number two: the unemployment rate on Labor Day, coupled with a sense of whether the nation’s economy is finally recovering, will have more to do with the outcome of the mid-term elections than the last year and a half of turmoil over health care/insurance reform. Congressional Republicans have bet the Congress on making the 2010 elections about health care. It might have been a better bet – we’ll see – to put all the chips on the economy. Every poll in every state says one thing – folks are worried more about the economy than anything.
There are, I think, some almost universal political truisms at play as the dust still swirls around the Washington action on health care/insurance reform. Democrats want you to believe it was a once in 50 year historic vote. Maybe. Republicans want the story to be, as GOP House leader John Boehner said, “Armageddon.” Probably not. More than the verdict of history or the demise of the country, this is politics and certain rules will apply.
Johnson’s Rules: Winning is Better than Losing
I’ve long been a fan of the Hollywood writer and director Preston Sturges. He won the Academy Award in 1941 for the screen play for a very funny political movie – The Great McGinty – and went on to make a string of classic, screwball comedies including The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels.
Sturges once came up with his 11 rules for box office success, including such gems as: “a pretty girl is better than an ugly one, a bedroom is better than a living room, a chase is better than a chat, a kitten is better than a dog, a baby is better than a kitten, a kiss is better than a baby, and a pratfall is better than anything.”
With apologies to the great filmmaker, but in the “spirit” of his rules – some things in politics are always better than some other things in politics – I offer my rules as something to think about as the next political chapter rolls out.
1) A win is better than a loss. Obama and Democrats have won. Politics tends to reward winners. Losers tend be regarded as, well, losers. Maybe the intensity around the current issue trumps that truism, but I doubt it. Bill Clinton went limping into the 1994 mid-terms reeling from a health care defeat and dogged by ethics allegations. He looked like a loser and was. Different story line now. A win replenishes political capital and support. A loss is a loss.
2) Hope is better than fear. In virtually every presidential election, at least back to Richard Nixon in 1968, the candidate who expressed the greater sense of optimism won. Think about Reagan and Carter, Reagan and Mondale, Bush and Dukakis, Clinton and Dole, Bush II and Kerry. Americans like the upbeat guy, the positive guy with the smile. Americans bought Obama’s optimism in 2008, I’m betting a majority still do and recent polling bears this out. The GOP message on health care was about the destruction of the country, creeping socialism, fear and dread. Now turn the media attention to the president selling the positive attributes of what he’s created and I’d bet a donut (hole) his optimism looks better to most Americans than John Boehner’s Armageddon. New York Times columnist Charles Blow sliced and diced the poll numbers recently and concluded that while the president’s approval numbers have certainly come down over the last few months, people still think he is inspiring – 61 percent – and that he makes them feel hopeful – 54 percent. Optimism trumps fear. It also doesn’t hurt Obama that the press loves a comeback narrative; exactly what he’s running with right now.
3) Being for something is better than being against something. Democrats, say what you will about the merits of the bill they just passed, were trying to do something, Republicans were trying to stop something. Being for something and winning – Bush’s tax cuts or Clinton’s welfare reform, for example – almost always beats playing defense, especially when you are defending an indefensible status quo.
4) A specific is better than a slogan. Republicans have always been better at the message game than Democrats, but now Obama and Democrats have specifics to talk about, Republicans don’t. Expect a lot of talk about the “donut hole,” about the end of denying coverage for “pre-existing conditions” and greater “regulation of insurance companies.” Details are good, if they can be understood. Those talking points, repeated over and over, can be understood, particularly since they now represent a done deal.
5) And, an improving economy is best of all. I began this analysis with a prediction that the state of the economy will have more to do with the fall elections than the nasty spectacle in Washington over the last 13 months. By November, if there is a genuine sense that the economy is improving – not a sure thing by any means – if American troops are continuing to come home from Iraq and maintaining in Afghanistan, and if the president is able to convincingly display a sense of optimism and confidence about the future of the country, then the mid-term could be more typical from an historic standpoint. Charlie Cook, the best guesser of which way the Congress will swing, now predicts Democratic loses in the House, for example, but not a GOP takeover. Expect R’s to win 25 to 30 House seats.
Seven months to election day. Much can happen, and probably will. Those are my predictions and I’m stickin’ with them – for now.