June, 3rd 2010

Health care a sticky topic for Rep. Dave Reichert... and other blue state, suburban Republicans

– Liz Mair

Huffington Post has a story up today about Rep. Dave Reichert's supposed flip-flopping on health care reform and the issue of reform-of-reform versus repeal.  Here's an excerpt, read it carefully:

When he's in Washington, D.C., Dave Reichert wants to repeal health care reform. Back in Washington state, the Republican Congressman says that calls for repeal are mere political posturing.

"The more radical approach is let's repeal this bill but I'm just gonna say that that's more of a political move, a political argument, than a substantial argument that says, you know, let's try to make this bill better," he told Seattle-based KIRO radio in March.

Last Thursday House Republican leaders introduced a bill to repeal the sweeping healthcare law adopted in late March, and Reichert helped lead the effort.

This may well be a topic that Reichert doesn't really want covered, but despite that, I'm going to go ahead and give it some attention because it gets to a couple of important and interesting subjects applicable to the "what's next" debate surrounding health care, overall, and the issue of how it plays in this election cycle.  First, how mathematically feasible is repeal, second, how serious are Republicans about repeal, and third, what's the best message for Republicans on health care reform in states that are rather more blue than red.  The answer to these questions will impact many Republicans, like Reichert, running in districts and states across the country that are not rock-solid Republican territory, but which Republicans must carry in order to wrest back control of the House and Senate (and, it bears noting, thereby have any chance of either substantially reforming or repealing the health care reform bill with which so many of us take issue). [intro]

On the first point, I write this as an ardent opponent of the health care reform bill that is now the law of the land who would like to see it repealed and then replaced with something better.  But let's call a spade a spade: Repeal is exceedingly unlikely to be possible anytime in the near future.  The numbers are, quite frankly, stacked against it.

Here's how: In order to repeal, veto-proof majorities of both the House and the Senate would need to vote to do so.  It is conceivable, though I think it unlikely, that Republicans could pick up enough seats in the House to make this possible, this November.  However, the Senate is a very different matter.  At present, there are 41 members of the Republican caucus.  Setting aside that I'd bet against at least two of these voting for repeal if push came to shove, that means Republicans would, realistically, need to pick up 16 seats in order to make repeal viable.  Now, let's look at the map and consider how this might happen.  Here's a Wikipedia map of Senate seats up for grabs this year:

And here are the seats, among those listed, that I think have an excellent or at least half-decent shot at being flipped from blue to red, as it stands:

- Delaware

- Pennsylvania

- Indiana

- Illinois

- Arkansas

- North Dakota

- Colorado

- Nevada

- California

- Washington.

That's ten.  Let's go ahead and add Connecticut to the list, and Wisconsin, just for the sake of argument (I think those are bigger uphill climbs than the others, though also flippable), and we get to twelve.

Have you spotted the math problem yet?  Barring Republicans flipping basically every currently Democratic Senate seat, or getting conservative Democrats onside, repeal in 2011 or 2012 is not looking like much of a viable option.  Don't get me wrong, I don't think Republican candidates should stop talking about it or expressing their commitment to it; I just think it's a tough numbers game to play.

That leads us to ask what the prospects for repeal look like after 2012.  Of course, if the country elects a Republican President, the math allowing repeal becomes significantly easier-- and it's doable on that basis.  But, if the country goes with Obama for a second time, a numbers deficit still needs to be made up. That's manageable, at least theoretically: Republicans will probably fancy our chances in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and depending on who we run, Missouri, Virginia, New Mexico and Florida (it bears noting that Scott Brown will be up in Massachusetts-- his re-election will be a real challenge, in my view). 

But, by the time 2012 rolls around, I wouldn't be surprised if Americans had gotten used to the idea of something that appears controversial right now (and rightly so, in my mind).  Is repeal going to be a priority for our elected representatives in Washington, DC, then?  Or will sufficient numbers of Republicans have defaulted to the position that it's politically unfeasible to "take stuff away" from their constituents?  If even a few Republican senators take the latter view (and my guess is they will), then repeal is off the table.

This is a long-winded way of spelling out two problems with repeal: The mathematical one, and the psychological one (for lack of a better term).  But the third one is that many Republicans running this year, and who are likely to run in 2012, who probably would like to repeal the law (and my bet is that Reichert is one of them) simply will struggle to sell that in the districts and states where they're running.  "Repeal Health Care Reform" is, for better or for worse, not a message that sells across the country.

Over the last couple of months, for reasons I won't get into here, I've been privileged to see and be talked through quite a bit of data on perceptions of health care reform in Washington.  Guess what?  People don't hate it there the way they hate it in other parts of the country.  Views of it are more favorable than what you find elsewhere-- even in California, which most people think of as equivalently blue to Washington.  If I had to guess, also, I'd say the 8th district is not in one camp or another with regard to the bill, either: It is an exceedingly moderate district where I'd guess (without having looked at numbers relevant to the district, specifically) that most people have issues with the specific reform put through, but favor reform, as a general concept-- including where it's done with the heavy hand of government.  I bet about equal numbers want it repealed, reformed, or extended towards single-payer.  Irrespective of whether those exact numbers apply, this is clearly a difficult issue for Reichert-- perhaps the most difficult.  To be fair, it isn't likely much easier for his presumptive general election opponent, who probably would prefer to "reform" the law by pushing it in a more single-payer-ish direction, but who would arguably find that much tougher than Reichert pushing for reform that is more market-oriented, transparency-centric, and patient choice-focused.  Fundamentally, that's because while the 8th district is moderate, it tends to be more fiscally conservative, but green and socially liberal.

I think Reichert knows all this, and I think it's behind the perceived differences between what he has attempted in Washington, DC, versus what may in fact prove practicable. 

Let me underline the point that flows from this: The issue here, on my read, is not a "difference" between what Reichert is advocating in Washington, DC, versus what he's advocating in Washington State.  The issue, if you can even call it that, is that Reichert, as a pragmatist who doesn't just want to let the law exist in its present form, has to work with both an ideal and a default-- like, I might add, many elected officials do.  He wants to repeal the law, and is working to do so, but recognizes it's a political exercise, not something likely to occur; so, he's got to talk about reform in terms of dealing with substantive issues in the law.  That's not flip-flopping: That's actually smart, reality-based legislative work.  It's an approach that I bet we're going to see from quite a few Republicans (and maybe a few Democrats) running in swing, especially suburban, districts over the coming months, too.

Will that open them up to attacks from their Democratic opponents?  Probably, but the important thing for Republicans to get across is the many problems with this bill and the fact that it is not a solution to America's health care challenges.  If they can do that, attacks like these ultimately won't matter-- and there's half a chance that one way or another, Americans won't be stuck with an increasingly shoddy health care system that they're dependent on and afraid to give up.



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