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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Health Care Bill Signed Plus Odds & Ends

Democrat health care reform legislation, aka Obamacare, has been like a cat hanging on to its ninth life by one whisker, yet last week, on March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the landmark bill into law. As Joe Biden so eloquently put it, "this is a big * deal." That date, indeed, may go down in history along with August 14, 1935 (Social Security Act) and July 30, 1965 (Medicare Bill) as a pivotal moment in the evolution of America's political/social/economic culture.

However, evolution and "change" do not always move us in a positive direction as a nation. The historic nature of this milestone is unquestioned, but whether it will help cure the many ills of our health care system and mitigate our dire financial straits or simply push down the accelerator on an already unsustainable and perilous path will be the subject of rampant debate for the foreseeable future. A key distinction between this historic legislation and the two before is that those enjoyed significant bipartisan support, this bill had none.

First to the policy objections. I have written extensively over the past year addressing many of the pivotal issues and hidden burdens embodied in the 2,000 plus page legislation, so let's take a big picture view. In fairness, there are good and bad features of the legislation. Now that the bill is law, I can only hope it works to slow or reverse our current trajectory of higher cost and higher deficits, but I'm afraid such a hope finds little grounding in reality and rational expectation. For example, it is "politically inconceivable" that future Congresses will show more courage than this one mustered and actually implement the spending cuts and tax increases critical to the cost projections of the bill. I do fear that this bill, focused on more government to fix the problem and more spending to reduce the deficits, will only exacerbate the problem in the midst of already record deficits and out of control spending. When the "doc fix" is included (adding $371 billion) and deceptive double counting eliminated, the deficit actually increases by an additional $260 billion over ten years.

Even with half a trillion dollars in new taxes and another half trillion in Medicare cuts, this legislation does not bend the cost curve down, a cost curve that, if not reversed, will break a lot more than our health care system. Instead it drives up cost and over time could actually reduce access to health care as rationing will likely become our last best hope of staying off the financial precipice. The "disagreeable absence of a free lunch" strikes again. Despite the many budget gimmicks and dodges cleverly built into the package, which paint a deceptively rosy picture of overall cost, it will push our health care costs and deficits only higher. We cannot fail to drastically and boldly reduce health care costs that are crippling an already weak economy. This law fails. It it a "fiscal time bomb" waiting to explode as the revenue will never come and costs soar ever higher.

In light of this already grim outlook, we all, Democrats and Republicans, agree that our health care system is in desperate need of reform, but Republicans tend to believe, rightly in my view, that this brand of reform will only make our current problems exponentially worse and pile new ones on top. The Republican solution is, broadly, to increase consumer choice and competition as a means of immediately reducing costs while correcting a system of perverse incentives and opaque costs by emphasizing tax incentives and state innovations. Viewed through the prism of the philosophical dichotomy between the parties, Democrats favor a solution predicated on increased government involvement and control while Republicans favor greater individual liberties and a free-market approach to the problem.

Now, because nothing that happens in Washington is without wide-ranging and often complex political implications, to the political fallout of Democrat health care reform. Yes, Democrats achieved a goal of paramount importance to the party in pushing through Obama's top legislative priority, but could it do more harm than good for majority and haunt them in November and beyond?

From raucous town halls during the summer months to demonstrations on the Capitol steps in the final hours of the sausage making, Americans of all political stripes have passionately and repeatedly expressed their displeasure with the Democrats' proposals. The will of the American people, expressed in polls from sea to shining sea, notwithstanding, Democrats tirelessly pushed their liberal agenda for health care through the halls of Congress. This seemingly blind and ideological pursuit could cost them dearly at the ballot box and prove to be a "colossal miscalculation." The year-long, tumultuous debate has inflicted significant damage on Obama and the Democratic Party.

As I recently outlined, 2010 is shaping up as the year of the Republican elephant. It's hard to see how the passage of Obamacare, which voters did not want, ameliorates what is looking like an electoral disaster for Democrats in November. Many analysts believe they have now dug the hole deeper, pointing to the voter backlash in 1994 following the failure of Hillarycare. The twenty Democrats hailing from John McCain won districts who voted in favor of the bill have earned bright red targets on their backs, with Sarah Palin and other national Republicans pouncing.

While we're all tired of legislative process stories, it's worth acknowledging voters' distaste for the kind of arm twisting, backroom dealing, logrolling, rules changing and raw politicking they witnessed from Democrats in a no-holds-barred effort to see their will done on a straight party-line vote, not to mention the broken promises. The use of reconciliation to push the legislation through the Senate on a simple majority vote after Democrats lost their 60th seat to Scott Brown in Massachusetts was only the tip of the iceberg.

Following passage, the public is very divided but hardly undecided about Obamacare, less than 10% without an opinion. In the immediate aftermath, Republicans are predictably unhappy, Democrats are happy and Independents are divided but favor Republicans on the ballot. The economy will almost certainly remain voters preeminent concern in November, but both sides will attempt to use health care to fit their own narrative. An improved perception of health care among the electorate is only one leg of the stool Democrats must build between now and November to avoid an unmitigated walloping that could cost them control of one or both houses of Congress. For starters, they need Obama's popularity and the sluggish economy to make marked improvements.

The President has certainly gotten a lot of positive press following the signing, but how long will the afterglow last and will any real bounce show up in the polls? Some polls indicate a slight post-signing bounce while others indicate no real change since the battle lines were drawn last summer. If anything, the Democratic base has ticked up a notch in enthusiasm, something they have been sorely lacking since electing Obama in 2008. Whether any positive bounce is lasting on transient will depend on "salesmanship and implementation" by Obama, his fellow Democrats and the administration. We'll have to wait until November to see how this saga ultimately plays in the minds of the only ones who matter, voters.

PG Poll: Do you support the passage of Democrat health care reform? Vote on the left side of the page.

Texting and driving has been in the news a lot over the last several months, and as someone who has been guilty from time to time, I find it interesting. Unless you're the rare "supertasker," the practice does impair your driving. From distracted driving forums to Senate legislation to an executive order from Obama, lawmakers are cracking down. The practice has even been dubbed a "menace to society." Society agrees. Ninety-one percent favor a ban. In my home state of North Carolina, DWT (I want a patent on that acronym) is now illegal and punishable by a $100 fine. Over a dozen states have passed such laws. Lest we paint texting with too broad a negative brush, remember that soft-hearted texters sent over $20 million to Haiti in one week. Political candidates are now wondering if they can leverage the technology to their benefit. Regardless of why you're punching away at the phone keyboard, make sure you steer clear, ha, of the banned words of 2010. Oh, and watch out for cell phone induced brain cancer.

While we're on technology, see the next generation of must have electronics. To make these gadgets run faster, the FCC is launching a "visionary" plan to expand broadband access across the country, something Google and everyday users have anxiously awaited. Speaking of Google, the behemoth of all things internet played a major role in Scott Brown's stunning victory in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the White House has been all aTwitter of late, even Obama tweeted, and the GOP has launched a hot new BlackBerry app for congressmen. Check out these two fascinating videos on the power of social media. Finally, after years of rumor, it looks like the iPhone really is branching out from AT&T.

Here's an assortment of particularly interesting pieces:
Turns our jerks are bad decision makers. Tall people are happier than short people. The 50 best YouTube videos of all time or the best and worst in four minutes. Nobody trusts congressmen or car salesmen but give nurses and doctors hight marks, would hope you trust your doctor. Scientific evidence points to life after death as 59% of Americans are "absolutely certain" there is a God. Basic arithmetic illustrates why the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Toyota crisis has demonstrated the "price of modernity." Your race may determine your nighttime and sleep habits. The President has a Facebook feed, sorta. In honor of a midterm election year, brush up on your political lexicon.

I'll end with what we all know is the most important thing gripping our nation this month, March Madness! Even as his health care reform was in its final hours and he was sharpening his 22 pens for the signing, the President was "examining the rubble of his bracket." He filled out a tourney bracket for the second year, but isn't seeing the success he enjoyed last year. With Duke in the Final Four, I (on the right in this ESPN pic) and my fellow Cameron Crazies are boiling over with excitement and anticipation, excitement that brain researchers at Duke and UNC have recently studied. Lest you hate, these Dukies "should be cheered" and are "worth rooting for." Heck, even UNC coach Roy Williams, sweating through an NIT Final Four game as I type, is picking Duke! Senate candidates in Kentucky are actually attacking each other on their Duke ties, love it! Turns out sports viewers generally and college basketball fans in particular are largely Republican, and most of the Final Four teams have GOP fan bases. If you don't quite get what the big * deal is (thanks Biden), see this guide on bluffing your way through the Dance... or follow the hilarious name bracket instead. If you do get it, Let's Go Duke!!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

2010: The Year of the Elephant

In American electoral politics, the great pendulum that is the balance of power between the two major parties inevitably swings from side to side as voters grow weary of ineffectual or excessively ideological rule by the party in power. As we approach the 2010 Midterm Elections, the pendulum, having moved far left in 2006 and 2008, is poised to make a dramatic swing back towards the right. Over the past two elections, Democrats picked up 54 seats in the House of Representatives and 14 seats in the Senate. In 2006, Democrats swept to majorities in both houses of Congress. In 2008, the party stretched its majorities in Congress and elected Barack Obama to the White House.

Only one year ago, Barack Obama was on top of the world and riding a wave of hope into the second decade of the 21st Century. Analysts predicted Democrats would add seats to their supermajority in the Senate, and, while the historic norm of the President's party losing House seats in his first midterm election was expected, no one dreamt that the party's 77-seat majority could be in danger. That was then; this is now.

In the months sinse, three Senate Democrats have announced retirements, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana, joining 16 in the House, including one more today, which hands Republicans another solid pickup opportunity. These retirements, with the exception of Dodd, only exacerbate what is already becoming a potentially disastrous cycle for Democrats, and many think the exit number will go higher.

The generic congressional ballot has swung 13 points towards Republicans, from a eight point Dem advantage in 2008 to a five point lead for the GOP. Democrats also fell below the majority support enjoyed since 2005 and saw their affiliation shrink in 39 states. The net favorability of the two parties has converged as Democrats have watched an 18 point positive become a 10 point negative. A full 40% of Americans now describe themselves as conservative, the highest number in years and twice the liberal ID of 20%. There has unquestionably been a significant political climate change across the country, yet Democrats in power haven't seemed to notice.

In his first year, the President's approval has rapidly fallen from 68 to below 50, a record decline. He's suffered an approval index dive of 41 points. Obama's approval in December was the lowest ever recorded 11 months into a president's term. His standing is even worse on major issues with Republicans now trusted more than Democrats to solve many of the nations most salient problems. Much of this drop is due to broken promises, the substance of his policies and what some see as a bait-and-switch operation. Even in the White House press room, the laughter has ended.

The swing has been most dramatic among the ever-critical Independent bloc of voters. This group supported Obama 64-16 in January 2009 but now disapprove of his performance 51-38. They approve of his performance on only one issue, international affairs. Democrats are understandably alarmed as Independents desert the party, due in no small part to the protracted fight for Democrat's health care reform. Independents now give Republicans a 16 point advantage on the generic ballot. What's more, there is a significant intensity gap with Republicans far more interested in November's midterm elections than Democrats. In midterm elections, where turnout is key, this intensity gap could portend the kind of wave Republicans hope for.

At the ballot box, Republicans have swept three state-wide elections. November saw Republicans take over the governor's mansions in Virginia and New Jersey. In January, a cataclysmic shock went across the political world as Republican Scott Brown won the Kennedy Senate seat in Massachusetts. That defeat cost Democrats their supermajority in the Senate, a result applauded by most Americans. Independent voters in these elections resoundingly supported the Republicans, 66-33 in Virginia, 60-30 in New Jersey and 65-34 in Massachusetts, after supporting Obama in 2008.

As the election calendar turns towards the midterms, most analysts are predicting Republican gains of around 25 seats or higher in the House and as many as 7 or 8 in the Senate, leading many to speculate that we could be seeing the landslide of 1994 all over again. Indeed, Stan Greenberg, a top Democratic pollster, acknowledges that his polls are eliciting a feeling of panic as it's beginning to look like that epic election cycle. Indeed, the polling looks remarkably similar. To regain control of Congress, Republicans must flip 40 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate. Senate control is not yet in play. However, top political handicapper Charlie Cook has gone so far as to say it is "very hard to come up with a scenario where Democrats don't lose the House." He added that you could triple the Republican Party's problems and they'd be better than those currently facing Dems. He blames the White House for "fundamental, total miscalculations from the very, very beginning" about the direction to take the country.

Even in our political system, in which change is the only constant, the seismic shift in the political landscape we've witnessed over the last year is remarkable. Cook notes, Democrats dominated Congress for four decades until the Republican Revolution of 1994. Then Republicans held the House for 12 years before being ousted in 2006. That seems like a lifetime compared to the current outlook for Democrats. Says Cook...

The trajectory of this election looks horrific for Democrats. In this kind of environment, days that go by without some "game-changing" development benefiting the GOP in a state or district are the exception, not the rule...

Whether or not Democrats hold onto their House majority by a sliver -- say, five or six seats -- and hold their Senate losses to five seats or so, the fact is that after just four years in power, congressional Democrats are in trouble.
There seems to be a new impatience among the electorate as voters sour on DC and the politicians, for the time being Democrats, who run it. Members of Congress earn the worst honesty and ethics score of any profession tested by Gallup. Voters see very little "we" in the political process and are sending a strong message to Washington that they've had enough of the perpetual dysfunction that grips the city. Eighty-six percent of Americans believe government is broken and 71% give Congress poor ratings. Some blame the President, pointing out that the US is far from ungovernable, while others blame Republicans. We are seeing a new populism, some call it a peasant revolt. In this environment, all incumbents should beware of the widespread sentiment, but Democrats, as the party holding all levers of power, will bear the brunt of voter backlash, just as they did in Massachusetts.

Fortunately for the majority, congressional popularity has little correlation with midterm election results. Unfortunately for Democrats, presidential popularity is of great import. Despite Obama's attempts to reassure fellow Democrats that the "big difference" between 2010 and 1994 is "you've got me," history tells us that the President will only drag his party down in November. No president has ever gained in approval between the beginning of a midterm year and the November elections. While Obama says the "buzz saw"of opposition won't stop him, it may well end the political careers of his friends, leading some to keep their distance.

While the outlook is quite rosy for Republicans, Cook reminds the GOP that, as I wrote in my last post, the voter discontent and outright anger now aimed at Democrats and elevating Republicans can easily turn on the GOP, particularly if we take control of the House and fail to move the country in a positive direction. If, however, Republicans are faithful stewards of voters' trust, we stand to make many more gains in the years to come. In 2012 and 2014, Democrats must defend a combined 43 Senate seats as Republicans defend only 22. The recent electoral imbalance which helped Democrats achieve a short-lived supermajority will afford Republicans an advantage in the next two cycles. This makes the odds of Republicans regaining the Senate majority in the not-to-distant future very good.

As for the elections in our immediate future, Michael Barone, author of "the bible of American politics," sums it all up saying,

What we have here are the makings of an epic party disaster. Whether it comes to pass is still uncertain. But it certainly could.
Will November, nine short (long?) months away, bring an epic disaster for the Democratic Party and see previously laughable Republican dreams realized or will these next months prove as tumultuous and unpredictable as the last, allowing Democrats to mitigate their own impending demise? While the GOP has all the momentum, alarms are sounding much earlier in the cycle than they did in 1994, which gives Democrats time to try a course correction. The smartest analysts in the business see little hope for such a turnaround, but remember, change is the only constant when talking about the individual political sentiments of 200 million unique voters and a political world in which new developments happen not by the week but by the minute. Here's to Republicans capitalizing on Democrat's failures, not just for the sake of renewed power but for the sake of the American people and a more prosperous future. Republicans must stand ready to govern, to bring the real change and progress we so deeply desire.

PG Poll: Put on your political prognosticator hat. Do you thing Republicans will regain control of the House of Representatives this November? How about the Senate by 2012? Vote on the left side of the page and leave your comments below!