Could Healthcare Reform Become a GOP Political Liability?

What happens if independents soften on healthcare?

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

This much we know: Barack Obama scored a big victory last night, both in terms of policy and politics; Republican leaders think that they've just been handed a poll-studded cudgel with which to hammer Democrats in the fall, though David Frum's GOP Waterloo theory is getting a lot of buzz (including from Jack). He posits that the healthcare bill is conservatives' "most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s" not only for reasons of politics, but of enduring policy.

I think there's a bit more to be teased out about the politics: Republicans look at the polls and see an unpopular bill (42-51 favor/oppose, according to pollster.com's average of polls) that has been foisted upon an unwilling nation. But polls are snapshots and public opinion evolves. Right now broad public opinion and the GOP base's opinion, most notably the Tea Party activists, are broadly aligned--neither group much likes the bill. But what happens for the GOP if the trends diverge?

There's little question that the new healthcare law, the lawsuits against it--both credible and talking points-based--and the Republican "repeal" movement will keep the tea party activists energized and engaged. Off-year elections are about mobilizing the party base, so that's a good thing--to a point. But while base voters have greater importance in off year elections, independents remain the key voting group in politics.

Indeed, Democrats argue that with the bill actually passed, these voters will start to focus less on process and more on substance. No more talk of death panels, deem and pass, or reconciliation; instead every news outlet in the country has stories and charts this week showing people what they get under the new law. There's no question that Tea Partiers will remain focused on health reform and repeal, and their views aren't going to change. But what of swing voters? By November, Frum argues, "the immediate goodies in the healthcare bill will be reaching key voting blocs."

As Obama adviser David Axelrod asked Politico's Mike Allen, which candidate will want to insist that children be kicked off of health insurance again because they have a preexisting condition, or that small businesses should not get tax credits to help pay for their employers' health insurance. If the health bill moves from unpopular to merely neutral, Tea Party-driven monomania for repeal will seem bizarre, especially if Democrats are talking about jobs.

There's still a long stretch of politics between now and Election Day, and things could play out much differently. This scenario relies at least in part on Democrats suddenly winning a debate they've been busy losing for months, and the GOP won't be sitting idly in the mean time. But whether they can bridge a divide between their base and independents remains to be seen.

Update: Matthew Yglesias drills down on new CNN polling numbers, suggesting "that running on a promise to shift health policy to the right is not much of a winning strategy."

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