The '10 spin war



Welcome to 2010 - which is supposed to be pronounced "twenty-ten," as opposed to "two thousand and ten." Or so I think. After all, Mark Twain died one hundred years ago, in "nineteen-ten," not "nineteen hundred and ten." Or maybe, to simplify matters, I'll just say '10 as much as possible - as I did in my latest Sunday print column, which is expanded here. Hope everyone had a good holiday. 


Farewell, 2009. Was that a fun year in politics, or what?

Birthers and Blue Dogs and polls, oh my. A new president under fire from the left and right.  A Republican party galvanized by the audacity of no. A gritty and grinding legislative process that makes you pine for the manufacture of sausages. An ex-vice president who makes less sense than your average homeless babbler. And, to top things off, a zealot with murderous underpants.

But ’09 was mere foreplay, when compared to what partisan delights await us in ’10. This is an election year in Washington. The Democrats have to defend their House and Senate majorities amidst a recession and two wars (three, if you count our covert maneuverings in Yemen). Most importantly, if Democrats hope to blunt their likely congressional losses, they’ll have to frame a positive message on health care reform – because, regardless of whether Barack Obama inks a law, this issue will be huge next November.

It’s a no-brainer that the Democrats will get beaten up in ’10; since 1954, virtually every president has seen his party allies lose House seats in the first midterm election. Ronald Reagan finished his first year in office with a 49 percent job-approval rating in the Gallup poll; 11 months later, in November 1982, at a time of 10 percent unemployment, Reagan’s Republicans lost 26 House seats. Obama, whose year-end Gallup job-approval rating was 51 percent, should consider himself fortunate if the House Democrats lose only 26 seats; after all, they stay in power as long as they cough up fewer than 41.

To minimize the damage, however, Democrats will need to rally their voters. Midterm elections are typically low-turnout affairs; right now the Republican base is far more motivated to show up, in part because anger is a great motivator. And the GOP is deft at tapping fear and anger for political profit. The party is currently peppering its grassroots supporters with emails that equate health care reform with domestic apocalypse  - "America cannot survive," "a threat to our freedoms," "government takeover," that kind of stuff – along with pledges to "repeal" any enacted reforms. Such is the party’s message blueprint for the ’10 elections.

Actually, some aspects of the GOP message are way funnier than Robin Williams. The GOP that is now crying about big spending and big-government expansion is the same GOP that enacted a deficit-busting Medicare drug prescription benefit in 2003. Unlike the Democrats’ health reform plan, which the Congressional Budget Office scores as deficit-neutral because it would be financed with spending offsets and new fees, the GOP’s unscored drug benefit law will spread half a trillion bucks in red ink during its first 10 years. As Republican Senator Orrin Hatch recently admitted, back in the GOP’s power heyday "it was standard practice not to pay for things." (Indeed, conservative scholar Bruce Bartlett, who worked for Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush, told the Associated Press the other day, "As far as I'm concerned, any Republican who voted for the Medicare drug benefit has no right to criticize anything the Democrats have done in terms of adding to the new national debt.")

But I digress. Given the fact that the angry right won’t care a whit about such Republican hypocrisy, the Democrats would be wise to get equally aggressive (as opposed to what they often tend to do, which is whine and quake). To motivate their own voters – most notably, the left-leaning independents who have been disenchanted by the long legislative slog; and the liberals who naively believe that imperfect reform is a good reason for staying home – Democratic messengers will need to affirmatively sell the health care overhaul (while also focusing heavily on the economy and job creation).

A Democratic health reform sales effort would not necessarily be as impossible as some assume. In December, a bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reported that, while only 35 percent of Americans had positive feelings about the Democrats, just 28 percent felt that way about the Republicans. And even though polls typically report majority opposition to health reform, that’s misleading. Many of the naysayers are liberals who dismiss the Democratic proposals as insufficiently ambitious; indeed, a CNN poll last month found that only 39 percent of Americans view the reforms as "too liberal."

The Democratic opportunity is obvious. For turnout purposes, they'll need to highlight the positive (and broadly popular) aspects of health reform, and paint the Republicans as the obstructionists who stand in the way. For instance:

One party voted to prohibit the health insurance companies from stiffing the millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions. The other party voted to perpetuate that discrimination.

One party voted to prohibit the health insurance companies from screwing the customers who get sick, either by hiking their premiums or dumping them entirely.  The other party voted to perpetuate those practices.

One party voted to financially help 30 million Americans who today can’t afford to purchase health insurance in the private sector. The other party voted to keep those Americans uninsured.

One party voted to make it easier for small business owners to insure their workers, with the help of tax credits and vouchers. The other party voted no.

One party believes that health security for all Americans in a fundamental inalieable right, just as it is everywhere else in the western democratic world. The other party does not believe in health security – which is no surprise, given the fact that it once voted against Social Security for seniors. (On April 19, 1935, the House Republicans tried unsuccessfully to bury the Social Security bill in the Ways and Means committee, with the aim of stripping out the payroll tax and the old-age benefit provisions. Ninety five Republicans voted to bury the bill. Care to guess how many Republicans voted to send the bill to the floor, with the key provisions intact? One.)

That’s the gist of the best Democratic health reform message, at least according to some of the party's most assertive strategists. It won't necessarily work in '10, however. Many of those who would arguably benefit most from health reform - the uninsured - are lower-income people who typically skip the midterm elections. Secondly, most of the promised benefits probably won't kick in until 2013 at the earliest; by contrast, the taxes and fees that would finance health reform would kick in almost immediately. Voters don't like pain; the Republicans this year have an opportunity to rhetorically exploit that.

But there's also the chance that the Republicans might overreach. If Obama does put his signature on a reform law this winter, another subplot comes into play. Newt Gingrich predicted last weekend that "every Republican running in ’10 and again in ’12 will run on an absolute pledge to repeal this bill." But do the Republicans really think they can reap political rewards by vowing to cancel a law that creates health security and bans insurance company abuses?

Perhaps so, if the tea-party voters dominate the '10 turnout. Ultimately, it all depends on which party controls the narrative. So welcome to another perversely entertaining year. Let the war of spin begin.