The midterm elections this November are shaping up as the most acrimonious in years. One indication has been the rising level of threats and vandalism against members of Congress who supported the new healthcare law, which has stirred passions across the country.
The Democrats and the White House have been rejuvenated by enactment of the massive bill, which President Obama signed last week. This changed the political landscape, at least for the moment, by showing that the Democratic majority in Congress could get things done by working with the administration. The newly combative Democrats' goal between now and November, party strategists say, will be to attack Republicans not only for opposing the bill but for seeking to roll back key benefits in the new law. The theory is that it's unpopular to take away benefits once they are given, and the Democrats will portray the Republicans as cantankerous and stingy obstructionists who want to do just that.
White House counselor David Axelrod says the debate will now shift from seemingly endless bickering over congressional tactics. This was terrain on which Democrats were always at a disadvantage because the legislative process is so messy and often incomprehensible to outsiders. The White House and the Democrats will underscore what the law will do for everyday Americans. "As people become familiar with it, it will sell itself," Axelrod says.
Not that the measure's supporters are holding back. Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has been traveling the country arguing that the new law will make a number of popular changes immediately, such as giving seniors a discount on prescription drugs, providing tax breaks to small businesses, allowing parents to keep their children on their insurance policies until they turn 26, and forbidding insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions.
" 'Bring back pre-existing conditions' is one helluva bumper sticker," Kaine told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during a fundraising trip to Georgia. ". . . I think all the Republican candidates should be asked, 'Do they want to be nonstop shills for the insurance industry rather than help people solve their healthcare needs?' " Kaine added: "All the boogeyman arguments the other guys created were fiction, and the American public will see that." The DNC is making these points in television and radio ads in more than two dozen key congressional districts.
Meanwhile, the GOP also is on the offensive, branding the new law as a vast and costly federal intrusion into healthcare. GOP strategists say that there are plenty of elements voters oppose and that Republicans will use these to attack Democratic incumbents who voted for the plan. Among the unpopular provisions: requiring most Americans to have a minimum level of health insurance or pay a fine. Sixty-two percent of voters say they are less likely to support a legislator who backed that provision than one who did not, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
On a separate track, a number of state attorneys general, led by Republicans, pledge to file lawsuits to have the law declared unconstitutional. They argue that key provisions are the province of the states, not Washington, and are zeroing in on the requirement that every American who can afford it must take out health insurance.
Some polls indicate that there has been a slight upswing in public support for the measure since its passage drew such massive publicity. Gallup, for example, found that 49 percent of Americans thought passage was "a good thing," while 40 percent thought it was "a bad thing" and 11 percent didn't know. This is a reversal from the findings of most polls before the bill was approved, when a plurality opposed the plan. The poll also found that 15 percent said they were enthusiastic about the bill's passage, 35 percent were pleased, 23 percent disappointed, and 19 percent angry. "Passage of healthcare reform was a clear political victory for President Obama and his allies in Congress," a spokesman for Gallup says. "While it also pleases most of his Democratic base nationwide, it is met with greater ambivalence among independents and with considerable antipathy among Republicans."