We are just past the halfway point between the last congressional election and the next one, and the conventional wisdom is that the upcoming election will be all about the economy. Elections during the Obama presidency, we are continually assured, are not about profligate federal spending, federal arrogance and irresponsibility, our colossal national debt, the consolidation of power and money at the expense of liberty, or the legislation that best encapsulates all of these: Obamacare.
The Democrats in general and Obama in particular know that if this next election is about profligate spending, the ensuing debt, or Obamacare, they will lose. If it’s about America’s place in the world, they aren’t apt to fare much better. But, while none of these things is likely to change much anytime soon, the economy can change. At the least, it could potentially have a brief uptick between, say, August and November of next year.
And even if the economy doesn’t change, Obama can certainly attempt to redirect the blame. Listen to him on the stump. Is he trying to make this an election about spending, debt, and Obamacare? Or is he trying to make it about the economy? Is he singing the praises of his signature legislative achievement, or is he blaming the woes of the middle class on (in his skewed version of events) a do-nothing Republican Congress whose members are more concerned with protecting the rich and saving their own seats than in taking action to improve the lives of everyday Americans?
What’s more, Obama’s approach seems to be working reasonably well. Rasmussen now shows Republicans and Democrats tied on the generic congressional ballot for the first time in two and a half years. Voters know that Obama inherited a lengthy recession, and to the extent that they’re holding him accountable for by far the worst “recovery” from such a recession in the past six decades, they’re also holding congressional Republicans accountable. In fact, several recent polls show that voters blame congressional Republicans for the poor economy even more than they blame Obama. And that’s the case even though less than half of the “recovery” period has taken place while the GOP has controlled the House. By next November, Republicans will have controlled the House during most of the “recovery” period, and voters likely will view them as sharing even greater responsibility.
The Republicans’ core problem isn’t that they’re struggling to win the blame game on the economy (though they are). It’s that they’ve forgotten to ride the wave that brought them here. Republicans didn’t get elected in 2010 because of voters’ dissatisfaction with the Democrats’ handling of the economy. They got elected because the Democrats openly and arrogantly ignored the voters’ will in passing the monstrosity that is Obamacare—and because Republicans stood firmly, resolutely, unflinchingly for Obamacare’s repeal.
Let’s look at the evidence. Every House Republican incumbent voted against Obamacare, and every Republican challenger (to the best of my knowledge) was in favor of repeal. So, to see the voters’ response to Obamacare, we must look at the Democrats.
Those Democrats who survived the primaries and sought reelection from districts in which Democratic presidential nominees had won by more than 5 percentage points, on average, in the past three presidential elections (in shorthand, +5 Democratic districts) essentially all voted for Obamacare. (There were only two exceptions.) Conversely, those Democrats who survived the primaries and sought reelection from districts in which Republican presidential nominees had won by more than 15 percentage points, on average, over the past three presidential elections (+15 GOP districts) essentially all voted against Obamacare. (There was only one exception.) However, there were plenty of Democrats who sought reelection in districts that ranged from +5 Democratic to +15 GOP, and their fate tells the tale of what the electorate thought of the health care overhaul.
In races in such districts—most of which are swing districts—Democratic incumbents who voted against Obamacare were more than twice as likely to win reelection as those who voted for Obamacare. Democrats who voted against Obamacare won 8 of 14 races (a 57 percent winning percentage). Democrats who voted for Obamacare won just 11 of 40 races (a 28 percent winning percentage). The latter, far less successful group actually ran in districts that were slightly more favorable to Democrats, as their districts averaged +3 GOP, while the former (far more successful) group’s districts averaged +6 GOP. (Races that weren’t called within two nights of the election aren’t included in this analysis, but would have had little, if any, effect on the tallies.)
Exit polling provides further evidence that it wasn’t the economy that did in the Democrats. Such polling showed that 35 percent of voters blamed Wall Street for the economy, while 29 percent blamed President Bush. Only 24 percent blamed President Obama.
Yet the Republicans won in a landslide in 2010. In fact, the last time that the Republicans gained that many House seats while also regaining control of the chamber was three months before Babe Ruth’s birth, in the late 19th century. So, if Republicans didn’t win 63 net seats because of the economy, why did they win? Republicans won because they shared voters’ opposition to Obamacare.
A year later, such opposition among voters hasn’t noticeably subsided and has arguably even increased. It now looks likely to remain every bit as strong across the coming months, until voters finally get their shot at the guy who thought he could impose a government takeover of health care against the cool and deliberate sense of a free people.
What should Republicans do? If Republicans want to show that they’re remotely as committed to eliminating Obamacare as Obama was in imposing it, there are plenty of actions they can take. Congressional Republicans can pass bills to repeal Obamacare’s CLASS (Community Living Assistance Services and Supports) Act and its grisly IPAB (Independent Payment Advisory Board)—and then follow that by once again passing full repeal legislation, this time in the midst of a presidential campaign. In addition, they can pass the replacement legislation for Obamacare that they promised voters they would deliver.
Republican presidential candidates can emphasize that repealing Obamacare is by far the most important thing the next administration and Congress can do. They can detail why Obamacare is probably the worst piece of legislation in American history, while unveiling plans to replace it—plans that would lower health costs, end the tax code’s discrimination against the uninsured, and fund state-run community pools to help provide access to coverage for those with prohibitively expensive preexisting conditions.
Beyond that, Republican presidential, congressional, and senatorial candidates would do well to reflect on, and perhaps reconsider, what the coming election is really all about. If Obamacare is one of the worst—maybe the worst—and most unpopular major pieces of legislation ever passed on these shores, and if its fate will likely be decided by the upcoming election (as it will), then why would Republicans say that the upcoming election is mostly about the economy?
Obama knows he cannot win a referendum on Obamacare. His best hope is that Republicans will continue to join him in pretending that this will be a run-of-the-mill election centered around the economy, rather than a historic election in which the citizenry’s verdict will largely determine the future course of the nation.