A lot of people in Washington appear surprised that congressional Republicans are intent on trying to repeal the health care bill that President Obama signed into law last year. What seems lost on them is that elections have consequences.
In the 2010 midterms, the health care law was second only to the economy as a root cause of the Democratic disaster. A December ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 52 percent of Americans were opposed to the law and only 43 percent supported it. In the survey, 86 percent of Republicans opposed the statute, while independents were evenly split at 47 percent for and 47 percent against.
Whether or not one believes that the health care law was good policy, Republicans have an obligation to the voters who restored their House majority and boosted their numbers in the Senate to at least make a good-faith effort to repeal the law. If they don't vote for repeal in the House and make an attempt in the Senate, GOP lawmakers will be seen as betraying that support. Of course, most Republicans, in and out of Congress, believe that the law was bad policy, so their attempts to repeal or modify it should not be viewed as political pandering. Republicans made this pledge as candidates, and now as elected officials they have to try.
Simple legislative arithmetic suggests that a bill repealing health care reform will pass the House when it comes up for a vote on January 12. The Senate is a different story. Even if a majority of senators favor repeal, the GOP doesn't have enough support to break a Democratic filibuster or override a veto. But Republicans are obligated to try even if the eventual outcome seems certain.
The more important question is, what happens after that? A logical course of action would be for Republicans to seek to make changes to the least popular provisions of the bill and then move on to other issues so they don't get portrayed as Johnny One Notes. Opposition to the health care measure was an important dynamic in the election but not the only one. Voters wanted other issues addressed as well.
During the lame-duck session, GOP leaders demonstrated that they understood they would be judged on competence: They recognized that voters want them to accomplish some things. While liberal and conservative voters have strong views and are passionate in their beliefs, moderates and independents (read: swing voters) want results. They are not ideologues or process-oriented, and they tend to take a dim view of both the political grandstanding and the partisan and sophomoric towel-snapping that they see as all-consuming in Washington. Either the economy and the job situation is getting better or it's not; government is being better run or it's not; the country is improving or it's not. That is what people in the middle, not the folks glued to the political food-fight cable shows, care about.
The fundamental truth is that voters don't really trust either party.
In three combined postelection Gallup polls, 31 percent of adults identified themselves as Democrats, 29 percent as Republicans, and a whopping 38 percent as independents. When the independents were asked which party they leaned toward and the overall numbers were recalculated, 47 percent of all Americans called themselves Republicans or leaned toward the GOP, and 44 percent considered themselves Democrats or leaned toward Democrats. Nine percent identified as pure independents, not leaning either way. Whether you want to define swing voters as the broader 38 percent of independents or the much narrower 9 percent who don't lean either way, they are the folks who swung in favor of the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and the GOP in 2010. Whether congressional Republicans can keep that momentum depends on how well they balance the desires of their base with the pragmatism and moderation of the middle.
It's a delicate political tightrope that congressional Republicans must now walk: the need to "dance with the one that brung ya," while still being results-oriented and not becoming consumed by the ideology and partisan vitriol of base voters. The fundamental truth is that voters don't really trust either party. They have seen wretched excess from both sides in the not-too-distant past.
One of the themes that worked so well for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign was his pledge to change how Washington worked. Arguably, until the lame-duck Congress came along, the president talked the talk but didn't walk the walk. The White House's decision during the postelection period to not outsource congressional liaison to the Democratic leadership was enormously fruitful for the president. Choosing to deal directly with congressional Republican leaders helped Obama close some important deals. And working with the president didn't hurt GOP leaders either, as they were seen as pragmatic and willing to bargain to achieve important results.
Will that dynamic continue in 2011? Let's see what the Republicans—and Obama—do after the repeal vote.
This article appears in the January 8, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.