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Channeling Woody Allen on Health Care

When Republicans talk about the issue their poll numbers improve.

12:00 AM, Jul 23, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Channeling Woody Allen on Health Care

For nearly two decades--and probably longer--Republicans lagged Democrats when it came to voter trust on health care. But for a variety of reasons, that deficit is easing.

"People seem ready to hear our message," Congressman Dave Camp, the senior Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, told me this week. "They are paying closer attention because of the president's emphasis on the issue, but we've stepped up our efforts as well."

He's right. Voters normally ignore the GOP on health care because Democrats talk about the issue and Republicans don't. Yet as Mr. Camp notes, that's changing: in part because the GOP is now engaging on this issue. And it's starting to have an impact.

Since January 1991, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll periodically has asked Americans which party they thought would do a better job on the issue. Over the years, Democrats have always held a sizable--usually double-digit--advantage. This past January, the poll showed Democrats with a 31-point edge. Interestingly, the gap in voter trust was the smallest back in 1993--when Republicans were forced to discuss their own ideas as alternatives to the Clinton health plan.

Rasmussen's surveys show a similar pattern over the last couple of years. Last July, for example, the GOP lagged by 21 points when asked which party voters "trusted" more on the issue. And as recently as May, the Democratic advantage stood at 18 points.

For these reasons, last week's Rasmussen survey finding a much narrower four-point gap was significant. Democrats now lead 46 percent to 42 percent in "trust" on health care. Other polls, like the Washington Post survey released this week, show Republican gains on the health care issue.

Significant, yes--but not that surprising. Here's why.

The concept of "issue ownership" explains a lot about the Democratic advantage. First developed by University of Missouri political scientist John Petrocik, the idea is that voters associate certain issues with one party or the other. Americans, for example, tend to link Republicans with the issue of tax cuts while Democrats are viewed as the party more willing to enlarge social programs.

Petrocik's thesis also has a self-fulfilling impact. Democrats talk more about it because they think they own it, which further solidifies their lead. Republicans believe health care is Democratic turf, and so they avoid it, which reinforces the GOP deficit.

But a curious development occurred during the 2008 Democratic primaries. As predicted by Petrocik, the party's candidates all talked a lot about the issue. Yet their rhetoric exhibited an interesting shift--toward Republican and conservative ideas.

Then-Senator Hillary Clinton represented this transformation best in her bid for the Democratic nomination. Burned by the moniker of "Hillarycare" from '93, she made some critical adjustments.

Her new approach recognized 85 percent of Americans had health insurance and were generally satisfied with it. She punctuated every speech with the line, "If you like what you have, you can keep it." Clinton also knew Americans preferred options and choices. So she called her initiative "The American Health Choices Plan." Finally, she knew voters would reject too much government control. And so every speech assured Americans, "It is not a government takeover of health care. It is a public-private partnership that provides more choices."

But choice, competition, maintaining what you have, and not interfering with the doctor/patient relationship, are Republican and conservative ideas. And an increasing number of GOP lawmakers are beginning to use these same themes to build more credibility on the issue. How? For starters, by talking about it.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is a good example. He's given over 23 speeches on the Senate floor about health care reform since June 1. McConnell's been so compelling that Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois now shadows him on the floor and tries to rebut what he says on a daily basis. He also joined House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio this week in a "pre-buttal" to the president's health care press conference on Wednesday.

Camp has also played a major role helping his House colleagues take communications on health care to a new level. "We've done twice as many YouTube videos featuring Republican members in the first seven months of this year alone compared to the entire last Congress," he told me. "We're also using Facebook and Twitter in a way we've never done before."