While the new health care law continues to dog Democrats in the here and now, the next election cycle could actually be worse for key supporters.
In 2012, nearly a dozen senators who helped write, shape, and ultimately pass the legislation that became law earlier this year come up for reelection on a ticket that will almost certainly include the biggest reform champion of all -- President Obama.
They include Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., whose perch on the Finance Committee put her squarely in the legislative mix; Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a member of a close-knit, bipartisan negotiating team that met frequently in an effort to craft a bill that Republicans could support; Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a yes vote from a state with a strong conservative bent.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., whose opposition to a health plan with a government-backed public option made him the foil of progressives in Washington and elsewhere, is also up for reelection in 2012.
During the tumultuous 18-month debate, this cast of lawmakers played arguably more instrumental roles in passing the broadest overhaul to the U.S. health care system in decades than even the current crop of candidates who have faced voter ire for doing so.
“I don’t imagine it goes away,” said an aide for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, speaking of the health care issue.
To be sure, it is difficult for even the most seasoned political observer to make accurate predictions for races one or two years out, and a number of potential scenarios hinge on the outcome of the midterm elections next week. But the success that Republicans have had so far in cornering Democrats on health reform makes it a near-lock that they would try to do the same again.
In its last tracking poll before Election Day, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that Americans remained split on the seven-month-old law.
Those results followed what the White House had hoped would be positive press after several provisions to rein in less-than-honest insurance-industry practices went into effect six months after passage. A quick scan of the law’s implementation timeline shows a host of important, yet less visible, provisions coming online in 2012.
Larry Smar, a spokesman for Sen. Robert Casey, who is also up in 2012, said that the Pennsylvania Democrat continues to tout the benefits of the bill but is aware of the negative reactions it arouses. “Of course, it has also been clear from the beginning of the debate that Washington Republicans were going to invest a lot of time and money to turn health care into a partisan political issue,” he said.
Nowhere is that strategy more evident this year than in the Keystone State. A Republican who has vowed to vote to repeal the law, former Rep. Pat Toomey, is in a tight race for an open Senate seat against Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat who voted for the legislation and is an unapologetic champion of it.
Democrats contend that the constantly changing political landscape makes it almost impossible to predict what will happen two years down the road. “The context of 2012 is going to be so dramatically different that trying to learn lessons from 2010 will likely take you down the wrong road,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.
This article appears in the October 25, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.