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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Health Care Progress & Approaching Elections

Despite major headwinds, the Democrats' Health Care/Insurance reform bill has made progress on Capitol Hill in the last couple of weeks as Max Baucus' Senate Finance Committee passed its version of the legislation out of committee. It is now one of five versions or reform circulating on the Hill, however, it is by far the most important and most likely to be the vehicle for ObamaCare. Baucus' bill, actually only "conceptual language" when released is the product of months of bipartisan negotiations between 3 Democrats and a dwindling group of moderate Republicans. In the end, Democrats were left with only one Republican aye vote in committee, Maine's Olympia Snowe, a very moderate and independent, thus exceedingly powerful, Senator.

The bill drew fire from both sides of the aisle. Republicans, despite some limited moderation, believe the bill still takes too much power from patients, giving it to government, and costs too much for individuals, families and the country, over $2 trillion by some analysis, sending soaring deficits higher. Liberals, meanwhile, don't believe the bill goes far enough in the direction of government run health care. Both sides regret that the bill falls far short of covering all Americans. There are many problems with this piece of "conceptual language," but the fact that it has been panned by both sides could be a signal that it is approaching some middle ground on the issue, often a positive position from which to launch major reform. I do not support the bill in its current form, but it is a substantive improvement from the more government, more spending, more taxes, more debt approach favored by Pelosi. Unfortunately, given that relative to the other 4 bills this is the moderate alternative, the final bill voted on in the Senate and the product out of the Conference Committee which will merge that bill with a more liberal House bill, will almost certainly be a greater afront to individual liberty and fiscal responsibility.

Public support of health care reform has dropped slightly with the committee passage of the bill. Only 42% of Americans support reform while 54% oppose according to Rasmussen. Even more, 56%, believe health care costs will go up if ObamaCare passes Congress, a rejection of one of Obama's primary justifications for reform. More broadly, Americans by a factor of 2 to 1 believe Government is doing too much, too fast. As for the Baucus Bill specifically, even Democratic Senators recognize it as a "big, big tax" on the middle class, a breach of President Obama's explicit campaign promise to not raise taxes on that group. All bills include an individual mandate, assailed by Republicans and opposed by Americans, which will result in young adults paying a big share of the cost. While the public option was left out of the Baucus bill due to broad opposition, some fear a trap by which it will make it's way into the legislation. Polling has varied of late on the Public Option with one poll showing a sample of doctors favoring it if alongside private care and a new WaPo poll showing support increasing.

The Baucus bill moves closer to fulfilling Obama's "Dime Standard" on reform, but it is still enormously costly, especially in the "out years" of the second decade. Democrats got creative in concealing the real costs from Americans and the CBO by staggering revenue and costs by several years. Many also believe the reform will be bad news for workers as higher costs on employers will be passed to employees. In addition, the bill will cut Medicare benefits for seniors according to the CBO, contrary to what Obama promises. There are other problematic elements hiding in the bill as well. Americans' concerns on these and other aspects of the bill are especially poignant to red state Democrats who are weary of spurning their constituents in supporting ObamaCare. Two-thirds of Americans say that how their member votes on health care will be a major factor in their vote next year.

Let's not forget one of several grand fallacy's in this push for reform. We are going to care for more people with less doctors. No matter how many ways you twist it, this will necessarily and absolutely lead to rationing of health care. The answer is not to turn a blind eye to the uninsured. It is to provide additional incentives and remove the disincentives present in ObamaCare for our best and brightest to join the medical profession in greater numbers. Getting serious about tort reform, despite trial lawyers being one of Democrats' most loyal voting and donor blocks, would be a good start. The shortage of primary care doctors in this country, approaching a crisis, will be a major obstacle to Obama's ideals and would worsen the impact of his reform. Worse, 45% of doctors say they would consider quitting if Congress passes the current health care overhaul!

In the President's lofty rhetoric and grand, counter-intuitive and even nonsensical proclaimations about health care reform, he "implies, misdirects and misleads." To say he lies is too strong, but he is less than honest, forthright and transparent with the American people in his frantic push for reform. Why? He expects, and has seen, that the more voters understand the necessary implications of ObamaCare, the more they fear and oppose it. Only 43% approve of how the President has handled the debate, with a majority disapproving. Perhaps for this reason, he is taking a "hiatus" on the issue so that he can "come back stronger." If only Obama and his Democratic allies would find strength by laying out honestly the enormous challenges facing the system and truly seek a bipartisan solution, many Republicans and Americans would seize the opportunity to collaborate on and get behind reform that is fundamental, critical and historic. Is there still a chance for this kind of progress on health care? Yes, if all involved, think more about Americans' future and less about their own political ambition.

Two major elections which could prove to be bellwethers of electoral successes to come, particularly for Republicans, are turning into the final stretch. The races for Virginia and New Jersey governor have only 12 days remaining and all sides have ratcheted up the intensity. For the GOP the races have been on divergent tracks of late. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell, the GOP nominee, is closing strong and has seen his lead in the polls more than double in the last month with the latest showing him up 19 points over Democrat Creigh Deeds. Meanwhile, in New Jersey the Republican nominee, Chris Christie, has seen his standing slide, not because incumbent Governor Jon Corzine has gained favorability, New Jersey voters still dislike him immensely, but because an Independent, Chris Daggett is gaining a larger share of the anti-Corzine vote. As a result, the race is in a dead heat in its final days. With Corzine hitting a ceiling around 40 percent despite his many fat jokes, the identity of New Jersey's next governor hinges on how many voters pull the lever for Daggett. Traditionally, Independent candidates under-perform their poll standing on election day as voters decide against throwing away their vote.

Bob McDonnell has expanded his lead in Virginia as voters have grown weary of Deeds' incessant negative attacks and his inability to articulate clear plans for confronting the Commonwealth's many challenges. The slide has led Deeds to point blame at "what's going on in Washington," not a good idea when it's the Obama voters you most need to give you a fighting chance. Those voters are unenthusiastic about Deeds to say the least while Bob is reaping the benefits of a "ginned-up GOP" who will likely turn out in force, tipping the expected turnout on November 3rd decidedly in his favor. Stu Rothenberg has responded to the movement in the polls by moving the race from toss-up to lean takeover for Republicans. Although Obama will be campaigning for Deeds this coming Tuesday, the White House has stepped back from the race somewhat so as to not tie itself to the sinking ship that is the Deeds campaign. Down ballot Democratic candidates are pursuing the same strategy of deserting Deeds as the campaign comes to a close. Even more worrisome for Democrats, polling on the race may point to trouble around the country in next year's midterms, including a precipitous drop in black voter turnout from the high of 2008.

Is is of course not over until the fat lady sings and the last votes are counted, but a Deeds Comeback, which Democrats still try to envision, saying it would be the "greatest comeback in the history of American politics," looks less and less likely with every passing day, especially with McDonnell enjoying a 2:1 cash advantage in the home stretch. For Deeds to snatch the Governor's mansion from McDonnell's grasp, he will need both the "sleeping giants" of the Obama surge to rise up and a major game changer to erase McDonnell's substantial lead among Independents before it is too late. Unfortunately for Deeds and Democrats, it probably already is.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Rising GOP Tide: Republican Gains on the Horizon

After two disastrous elections in 2006 and 2008, the Republican Party has found a pulse and looks poised to comeback with major gains in upcoming cycles, beginning with the two gubernatorial races less than a month away and next year's midterm congressional races. The tides that were strongly at the backs of Democrats in the last two elections are quickly shifting direction and portent much greater GOP fortunes. The extent of the GOP revival is unclear, but gains are inevitable. American politics is "reliably cyclical," and we love a good comeback story. Therefore, 2010 will be an exciting, perhaps monumental, election cycle.

To make sure Republicans are motivated, Vice President Joe Biden, who likes to say things, announced that a Republican takeover of the House in 2010 would be the "end of the road" for the President's agenda. Ironically, the President's job approval is one of the factors pointing to GOP gains. Democrats have picked up 54 seats in the past four years to establish a substantial majority, but trouble is brewing. Republicans would need to pick up 41 seats to regain the majority, a sweep that was thought impossible, but is now not entirely inconceivable. Charlie Cook believes the "situation has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and Congressional Democrats." Stu Rothenberg sees 70 Democratic-held seats as competitive compared to only 34 currently in GOP hands. He is predicting a GOP pickup of between 20 and 30 seats. Forty-nine Democrats represent districts won by John McCain in 2008. It is important to note that the President's party typically loses a number of House seats in his first midterm election, but 2010 is shaping up for greater than expected gains for Republicans as the party targets 80 seats, including some of entrenched Democrats. The upcoming midterm is being compared to 2006 election in which Democrats gained 30 seats as well as control of the House and the Republican Revolution of 1994. All experts see double-digit Dem losses in 2010 at a minimum, with statistical forecasting predicting at least 15.

The Senate will also play host to a number of top-notch races in 2010 as Democrats may struggle to retain their 60 vote supermajority. There are some notable Democratic senators who have proven extremely vulnerable as we approach the midterm elections. The most prominent is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who, in the latest polls out of Nevada, is trailing his top challenger by 10 points. Also behind in the polls is embattled veteran senator Chris Dodd and party-switching Arlen Specter. Democrats from blue-states seem to be ignoring the fact that their party has a problem and are putting red-state democrats in potentially perilous positions. Even members not up until 2012 are concerned and raising money years early. In North Carolina, incumbent Republican Richard Burr is vulnerable but leads potential opponents, including Elaine Marshall, by double digits. There will also be a number of additional gubernatorial elections around the country in 2010, where incumbent difficulties are signaling trouble for Democrats.

Fortunately, political junkies, and especially Republican voters, don't have to wait until November 2010 for the excitement of a comeback. Virginia and New Jersey always elect governors one year after presidential elections. This gives these races disproportionate significance and earns them the focus of the political chattering class as well as the national parties and
White House, despite their "hyper-localism." In Virginia, Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell is leading the race against State Senator Creigh Deeds, in a rematch of the razor-thin 2005 attorney general race, that some see as a model for a GOP comeback. In New Jersey, the Republican Chris Christie is also leading incumbent Jon Corzine. Both races are proving daunting for Democrats.

Living in Virginia and working in Republican politics, I've enjoyed a first-hand view of the gubernatorial race, and the McDonnell campaign in particular. In the last 8 elections, Virginians have elected the candidate from the opposite party of the President. Republicans are hoping the "presidential jinx" continues this year. McDonnell opened up a 15 point lead in the race during the summer, but negative, backward looking attacks by Deeds have closed the gap somewhat as election day approaches. However, Deeds stumbled mightily as he was caught on camera talking out of both sides of his mouth, incoherently, on raising taxes. The video, particularly his condescending snap at a female reporter has gone viral and is now featured in a major ad buy for McDonnell in Northern Virginia. Also, with Obama's popularity now upside down in Virginia, it is unclear whether he would help or hurt Deeds, who is facing a major enthusiasm deficit and is struggling to motivate NOVA liberals, in the closing weeks. McDonnell now leads by an average of 7.3 with four weeks to go. In New Jersey, where the race has also tightened, Christie leads by 3.8. (Note: Follow RCP polling charts on both races at the bottom of the PG Blog.)

It's not too early to look a bit further ahead to the 2012 presidential election in which President Barack Obama, who has been on the defensive quite a bit, will have to again face voters and, perhaps, pay a price for his rapid move towards further government intervention which has angered a large segment of Americans and dramatically hurt his standing in the polls, leading to major losses among Independents who now disapprove of the President. If I had to make a prediction today, it would be that one of the two men pictured on the left, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, will challenge Obama for the White House. These are two of the most influential Republicans, and both are making clear moves towards a presidential run, the second for Romney who came up short in 2008.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, called the gut of the party, announced in early summer that he would not seek reelection, a move understood as allowing him to focus on a presidential campaign. He has already traveled to eight states in recent weeks, assembled a campaign team and started a PAC. Meanwhile, Romney's 2012 team is poised for another run. Some commentators are going so far as to predict that Romney will be our next president; he is after all "next-in-line." However, in addition to Romney and Pawlenty, there are other formidable candidates who may mix up the field, including rising star John Thune and grassroots conservative favorites Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.

A major voting blog Republicans must better attract in 2012 is young voters, aged 18 to 29, which Obama won 66-32. The GOP challenge to win those critical voters back will be a major storyline in the next three years as the campaigns heat up. Some argue that to attract these and other Obama voters, Republicans should move off base. Meanwhile, Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele works to merge all factions of the party into one cohesive and effective organization. Indeed, Obama is losing support with Hispanics and young voters. Seniors, who make up a disproportionate share of the electorate in midterm elections will also be critical in the upcoming cycles.

Ideologically, more Americans identify themselves as conservative than liberal by a two-to-one margin. What's more, also by a two-to-one margin, Americans report becoming more conservative in recent years. In each of the 50 states, conservatives now outnumber liberals. The term "liberal" is actually the least popular of all political labels. However, on specific policy issues, public opinion seems to be tilting more liberal.

These days, politics is money. For better or worse, exorbitant amounts of money shape races and can determine elections. On that point, Republicans are off to a better start than Democrats in 2009. The Senate campaign arm for Republicans, the NRSC, has outraised the DSCC two months in a row as Democrats have been jarred by a drop in fundraising. Meanwhile, on the generic ballot, Republicans have recovered from their deep deficits which preceded the last two election and pulled to even or slightly ahead, major signs of a changing political reality as Democratic Party ratings have plummeted.

In a sign that Republicans learned something from the dominance of the Obama campaign in Web 2.0, the GOP has taken a great liking to Twitter and is dominating the medium compared to their Democratic colleagues. With more Americans paying "very close" attention to politics than ever, Twitter provides a unique and direct way for elected officials to communicate with their constituents and supporters. Even John McCain, who did not know how to use a Blackberry as he ran for president, is now one of the most prolific tweeters on the Hill.

Aided by a variety of factors from Twitter to the mortalizing of Obama, Republicans will make gains in Congress in 2010 and may very well pick up wins in both gubernatorial races only 28 days away. How significant, or even historic, the GOP comeback will be a year from now remains to be seen. I look forward to following the races as excitement builds and news breaks. Stay tuned to the PG Blog for all the latest, follow on Twitter and send in first-hand accounts of campaigns around the country. It promises to be a fun ride.