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Legacy Content / POLITISCOPE

Will Midterms Be About Health Care After All?

Neither Party Has Dropped The Issue Yet, And It's A Fair Question Whether They Will

March 31, 2010

Corrected at 10:35 a.m. on March 31.

While new polls suggest that health care reform won't be voters' top priority this fall, both parties are spending valuable time over the congressional recess stoking the fires of the roiling debate. Do they know something we don't?

We've heard for months that, come November, it'll be the economy, stupid. But could conventional wisdom be (gasp!) wrong on what impact the yearlong battle will have on the midterms? Could the 2010 elections instead be all about health care after all?

 

Hear me out.

First, the new Washington Post poll shows that the percentage of adults who doubt they'll be thinking about health care this fall is down 5 points since January, meaning more people suspect it will be a factor. That small shift is likely due to last week's media coverage of the historic votes and President Obama's bill signings. At the same time, however, the political debate crystallized into the kind of bumper-sticker themes that fit perfectly into national campaigns: Put us back in power, Republicans are saying, and we'll "repeal and replace" the law. "Bring it on," counter newly confident Democrats, who plan to force Republicans to explain specifically which benefits they would undo.

The celerity with which both parties embraced their respective themes suggests they have both learned from past shortcomings -- most recently, Democrats fell short in selling the economic stimulus package, spurring a huge shift towards Republicans.

The health care debate also solidified last week in another way, of course, stirring the kind of white-hot anger that typically fades but still can help parties motivate their bases for the long term. (As several new polls show, health care helped Democrats close the enthusiasm gap with Republicans -- for now, at least). A feisty debate over jobs can achieve the same goal, of course. But unless a clear verdict of Obama's economic record emerges before November, can candidates draw distinctions as effectively?

Some Democrats privately recoil when they ponder a campaign season dominated by health care, citing polls that show their legislative victory hasn't translated into a bounce in Obama's approval ratings. It's become a trend for Obama, who drew little to no bounce after the protracted Democratic primary with Hillary Rodham Clinton in June 2008 or the party's nominating convention that summer.

Then again, maybe that's not surprising, either. In an age of 24/7 news cycles, political blogs and general Internet overload, is it outdated to believe that a widely anticipated development -- even one as monumental as the passage of health care reform -- could really produce a clear bounce?

CORRECTION: The original version of this column misattributed the Washington Post's poll.

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