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How the Health Care Summit Could Backfire on Democrats

And help the Republicans.

12:00 AM, Feb 18, 2010 • By GARY ANDRES
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Conventional wisdom in Washington has already figured out the winners and losers of next week’s White House health care summit.  The smart money is on President Obama. The silver-tongued orator will wow C-Span viewers, demonstrating his knack for substantive detail and cool debating style.

How the Health Care Summit Could Backfire on Democrats

The mainstream media has the tactical narrative ready to report as well. Mr. Obama either forces Republicans to compromise and pass some version of health reform, or makes the GOP look like obstructionists. 

That was easy.  

Yet there’s also another possibility. What if the summit backfires on Democrats? Could increased attention on GOP lawmakers and their ideas actually improve the Republican party brand on health care?  That’s a distinct possibility.  

First, let’s begin with a theory developed by University of Missouri political scientist John Petrocik called “issue ownership.” Petrocik argues that voters associate political parties with certain issues.  Americans link Republicans with tax cuts and strength on defense spending, while Democrats support more federal funding for education and other social programs.  

In other words, Democrats “own” the health care issue.  It’s popular with the party’s core supporters and Democratic politicians tend to spend a lot of time talking about the issue.  Republicans don’t.

These communications patterns also produce political implications.  Historically, when voters are asked, “Which party do you trust more to handle health care?” Democrats win hands down. Indeed, as I wrote back in July in a WeeklyStandard.com column titled, “Channeling Woody Allen on Health Care,” Democrats have always held a sizable – usually double-digit – advantage on public polls asking which party would do a better job on health care.  The gap swelled to 31 points in January of 2009.Until recently, the spread was the smallest back in 1993, the last time Republicans engaged in the health care issue in a major way, debating what was then called “Hillarycare.” 

Translation:  When Republicans talk about health care, and the public’s paying attention to the issue, their numbers move up.

It’s already happening.  In June of 2009, the GOP lagged Democrats by 28 points on the health care issue (55 percent -27 percent) according ABC News polling.  By last week – after months of actively debating Democrats --  the most recent ABC News poll found the gap in trust on the issue shrunk to 5 points (46 percent - 41 percent).

Rasmussen surveys (which incorporate a “likely voter” screen and therefore tilt more Republican) demonstrate an even more positive picture. In its most recent surveys, voters trust the GOP more on health care by 12 points (49 percent -37 percent), including a whopping 53percent -19 percent edge among independent voters.

But there’s more.  This isn’t just a debate between Obama and the Republicans.  Participants in the February 25 summit will include a host of Democratic congressional leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Charles Rangel of New York (Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee) and Henry Waxman of California (Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee).  If the White House wanted to put a young, moderate, friendly face on the health care playing field, these would not be the top draft picks.  Pelosi, Rangel and Waxman are among the most liberal, partisan and elderly members of the House.

Contrast these with some of the less-well known faces like Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, and senior Republican on the Ways and Means Dave Camp. The difference could be stark. 

And don’t forget about substance.  Democrats emphasize covering the uninsured -- about 15 percent of all Americans.  But in order to get there, they have to construct a massive new entitlement structure that impacts the 85 percent who have coverage with higher taxes and fewer choices.

Republicans take a different approach. They will focus on making health care more affordable. Making insurance available across state lines, reforming frivolous lawsuits, and allowing individuals and small businesses to pool together to reduce rates. These are just some of the ideas they will put forward.

Democrats can’t support a lot of these GOP ideas because liberal interest groups and lobbyists for the trial bar and a variety of so-called public health advocates oppose them. This link to ideas that drive up health care costs could get full exposure at the summit.

No one knows yet who wins the politics of the summit next week. But broader exposure to GOP ideas, some new faces in the debate, and a focus on health care affordability, could convince people that Republicans were right in blocking a partisan health care bill and Democrats aren’t the only ones with ideas on this issue.

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