Will Healthcare Reform Cost the Democrats Congress?

The Democratic party has made comprehensive healthcare reform its top priority this year. A majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives are backing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s proposal. One of its provisions is the creation of a government-run insurance plan, otherwise known as a public option, to compete with private insurers. A similar program is included in the Senate’s reform bill. While the public option is supported by liberal Democrats, some conservative Democrats have concerns. Among other things, they are worried that pushing reform through will lead to the Democrats losing control of Congress. Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee chairman and adviser to President George W. Bush, has also expressed this view. Midterm elections are set for 2010, and the majority party typically loses seats in those years. The hopes of Democratic congresspersons are riding on the success of healthcare reform. More importantly, their chances rest on convincing the public that they have the best plan to fix the crisis. Most Americans seem to agree that the current system needs changing, but are skeptical of how Democrats propose to do so.

There has been increased opposition of the current healthcare reform bill, which doesn’t bode well for Democrats. A recent survey shows that 54% of Americans oppose Congress’ reform plans. The town hall meetings over the summer proved that people are very passionate about health care and will not hesitate to vote out representatives and senators who disagree with them. Democrats who represent more conservative districts are most likely receiving significant pressure from their constituents. Pelosi may not realize just how fragile the issue is, being from liberal-leaning San Francisco. Most significantly, 48% of independent voters are against the current plan. While Democrats have most likely written off most Republican votes, they recognize the need to attract unaffiliated voters. These voters, who don’t seem to be won over, appear to be more concerned with reducing the national deficit. The Democratic party’s singular focus on health care will probably hurt them at the polls.

Moreover, the young adult voters who helped put President Barack Obama in office–and tend to support healthcare reform including a public option at higher rates than the general population–are less likely to go out to the polls during off year elections. It’s up to Democrats to convince 18-to-29 year olds that reform of our healthcare system is as important as voting for president. Senior citizens, who are already insured by Medicare and are more reliable voters, are more worried about losing the health insurance they already have. The loudest voices in the healthcare debate seem to come from people who already have health insurance, usually from their employers. They are mostly worried about the existence of a public option leading to employers dropping the existing health insurance plans that 68% of likely voters consider “good” or “excellent”.

At least one small part of healthcare reform looks to be popular with voters: two thirds of them agree with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on revoking health insurers’ exemption from anti-trust laws; the only other industry exempt from them is Major League Baseball. This would increase the availability of more affordable health insurance. On the one hand, failure to pass a healthcare reform bill could make the Democrats look like inept failures. Conversely, jamming the bill through Congress may inspire even more rage. A slight majority believe that the Democrats’ current bill will lower the quality of healthcare and increase the cost. The bill wouldn’t fully take effect until 2013, even if it’s passed this year. Therefore, any positive impacts of healthcare reform wouldn’t be evident for several years, while the nearly trillion-dollar cost and fears of socialized medicine are more immediate in the minds of voters. Some may be cynical about a Republican operative offering political prescriptions to the opposing party, but even Reverend Al Sharpton agrees that there is a germ of truth in Gillepsie’s prediction. However, the Democratic party may be willing to take the risk of losing if they feel that expanding healthcare coverage to all is that important.