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Is Health Care Polluting the Political Environment for Democrats?

It's getting messy.

12:00 AM, Mar 18, 2010 • By GARY ANDRES
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If the Democrats’ health care bill were a chemical, the Environmental Protection Agency might label it as a toxic substance lethal to incumbents.  More wavering House lawmakers are realizing this chilling electoral reality as the showdown vote approaches in the next several days.

Is Health Care Polluting the Political Environment for Democrats?

What’s keeping vulnerable Democrats up at night? The likelihood that even voting “no”  might not be enough to protect some of them from the poisonous political atmosphere that has been building and that passage of the bill could further aggravate.

Just ask some of the incumbent Republicans who lost in the pro-Democratic tsunamis of 2006 and 2008, like former GOP Reps. Chris Shays or Rob Simmons of Connecticut, Phil English of Pennsylvania, or Jeb Bradley and Charlie Bass in New Hampshire.

At various times these House members voted against President George W. Bush or their leadership in Congress, thinking it would distnace them from their party’s increasingly poisonous brand and angry voters.  It didn’t work.

“In those two cycles -- in certain districts -- just having an R next to your name was toxic,” Ken Spain, communications director of the House Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, said. “These incumbents worked hard and tried everything, including voting against their leadership and the White House on occasion.  But even that wasn’t enough,” he added. 

The three dozen or so Democrats who end up voting against the health care bill could be in the same boat.  With 253 Democrats in the House, up to 37 could vote “no” and the measure would still reach the bare minimum 216 needed, assuming every Republican also opposes the plan. Passage of the controversial measure will only further pollute the environment, making it impossible for some of them to survive.

Deteriorating environmental conditions are most important in the Democrats’ districts that plan to vote “no.”  Think about it this way: These Democratic incumbents represent areas with significant percentages of independent and Republican voters. Their constituents won’t just look at the health care vote in isolation, but many will draw a general conclusion based on a whole series of actions by the Obama administration and Democrats over the past two years.  They won’t like the result.

“Voters don’t construct a carefully calibrated, audited list of roll call votes, weighted by importance,” said Michael Boland, a former senior House GOP leadership aide who now runs Dome Advisors, a Washington research organization for the institutional investment community. “Those are just the wrong assumptions. Many voters -- particularly independents -- are disgusted with Washington.  They hear words they don’t understand: reconciliation, side car legislation, self-executing rules.   This only further pollutes the environment,” Boland argued.

Trying to protect House Democratic lawmakers from directly voting on the Senate bill will only stoke public disgust further.  This isn’t 1980 anymore.  Democratic leaders who think they can hide a vote by “deeming” the Senate measure as passed in a parliamentary procedure are either naïve or just plain dumb. News organizations, blogs, and traditional mainstream media are already humming with information and analysis about this unprecedented procedure and its assault on transparency.

Many of these incumbent lawmakers won in an environment in 2006 and 2008 where they attracted nearly all the Democrats, a majority of independents, and even some Republicans.  The calculus has now changed.  Current polling shows Republicans more energized than Democrats – a reverse of conditions two years ago.  And independents –  tilting heavily against the GOP in the last two election cycles – now say they intend to support Republicans.  Furthermore, American voters like divided government – something they have voted for in 30 of the past 42 years.

As campaign analyst Charlie Cook said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last week, sometimes the political environment is like cement --  after a while it just starts to harden.

Passage of health care might help energize Democratic base voters, but it will also create a counter mobilization among Republicans. And maybe most significantly “harden” independents against Democrats in the districts where these swing voters are needed most.

Under normal circumstances, Democrats distancing themselves from unpopular policy issues might insulate them from a bad election cycle. Not so in 2010. Yet the time spent on health care and the controversy surrounding it could produce a major impact on the political environment.  Irrespective of an individual Democrat’s vote on the issue, overcoming the toxic consequences on the public mood in many of these swing districts may be impossible.

 

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