Zeal and repeal

    Quelle surprise! Here was John Boehner yesterday, divining a nonexistent mandate:

    “The American people were concerned about the government takeover of health care. I think it’s important for us to lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity…We have to do everything we can to repeal this bill.”

    And here was Boehner lieutenant Eric Cantor on midterm election night:

    “So I believe that when we take majority in January, I hope that we’re able to put a repeal bill on the floor right away because that’s what the American people want.”

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    In a way, you have to admire our future House leaders. They don’t let empirical facts intrude on their determination to do what they want. It’s a hard-wired Republican trait, actually; George W. Bush drew 544,000 fewer popular votes than Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race, yet Bush’s strategists interpreted the results as a mandate anyway and Bush governed accordingly.

    That’s now how the Democrats go about their business. If the Democrats wanted to repeal a major law, and realized that the public felt otherwise, they would dump the idea and cower in their beds. Republicans, by contrast, construct their own reality and defend it with disciplined zeal.

    For what it’s worth, here’s a window on empirical reality: There is no ” mandate” for repealing health care reform. For starters, the pro-repeal position couldn’t even pull a majority of voters in the midterm exit polls – and this was the most conservative midterm electorate ever recorded by exit pollsters. Forty-eight percent said yes to repeal, but 47 percent wanted to expand health reform, or leave the new law just as it is.

    In fact, the health care issue wasn’t even a priority; only 18 percent of all midterm voters listed it as their top concern, and 55 percent of those voters favored the Democratic congressional candidates anyway.

    The split on repeal, as evidenced in the exit polls, roughly mirrors what most surveys have reported all year. An Associated Press poll found a 50-50 split in October; last summer, a Bloomberg News poll said that 61 percent opposed repeal, preferring instead to leave health reform alone or at least see how it would work. But the most instructive finding showed up two months ago, in a CBS-New York Times survey: Forty percent said they favored repeal – but when pollsters mentioned that repeal would allow insurance companies to resume their old practice of denying coverage to people with pre-existing health infirmities, support for repeal plunged to 19 percent.

    (Care to guess why these poll respondents had no idea that health reform bars insurance companies from behaving that way? Because the Democrats were too terrified to tout the best features of reform, having lost the narrative back in the summer of ’09 to the visceral conservative lies about “death panels.” And President Obama was instrumental in losing control of the narrative. Here’s one infintesimal slice of an answer that he gave about health reform, on TV, in July ’09: “…Now, what we did very early on was say two-thirds of the costs of health care reform, which includes providing coverage for people who don’t have it, making it more affordable for folks who do, and making sure that we’re, over the long term, creating the kinds of systems where prevention and wellness and information technologies make the system more efficient. That the entire cost of that has to be paid for and it has got to be deficit-neutral. And we identified two-thirds of those costs to be paid for by tax dollars that are already being spent right now. So taxpayers are already putting this money into the kitty. The problem is, they’re not getting a good deal for the money they’re spending. That takes care of about two-thirds of the cost…”)

    Anyway. In fairness to Boehner and Cantor, they have little choice but to paint the midterms as a mandate for repeal – because they can already feel the hot breath of the tea-partiers in their necks…starting with the tea-partiers’ enablers on the inside, notably Jim DeMint in the Senate and Mike Pence in the House (Pence already sees himself as presidential material), and the celebrity talkers on the outside, notably Sarah Palin, who appeared the other day on Laura Ingraham’s radio show to say “Repeal the whole thing.”

    The general public clearly favors a more, shall we say, nuanced approach to health reform, and would be pleased if all sides could reach a modicum of cooperation, on many fronts, in the new divided government. Zealotry would intrude on that best-case scenario; a health reform repeal battle, and an Obama veto, would be a destructive distraction. In the months ahead it will be Boehner’s burden to keep the zealots from running wild. Good luck with that.

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