Dems must deliver for base

Most voters just want some form of healthcare reform done so we can move on. In the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a plurality of 47 percent of Americans are insistent on passing some form of healthcare reform “immediately” and another 23 percent are willing to be patient for a few years at most.

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The “glass half-empty” crowd will continue to point out that there is not overwhelming support for the president’s proposal. In the new poll, 46 percent want to pass the plan and change our healthcare system, while 45 percent prefer things just as they are. Other polls show similar numbers.

This certainly isn’t an overwhelming endorsement — it is a push. A tie suggests something for everyone, so it is important to figure out who is in what group.

The poll helps do that. It offers real insight into the risk Democrats run in voting on the current healthcare reform bill. The risk to most is in not voting for it. Yes, Republicans and a significant number of independents either outright oppose the plan or have serious questions about it. But the Democratic base is committed to reform. Constituencies such as blacks, Latinos and those who admit to being liberals are strong supporters of the plan backed by the president. They can be motivated to turn out as they did for Obama — but only if Democrats have the courage to pass healthcare reform. Right now they are less enthusiastic than core Republicans about voting in this year’s midterm elections. The NBC/WSJ poll found a “21-point enthusiasm gap” between core Republican and Democratic voters.

As pollster Peter Hart commented, “I don’t think it’s about winning the middle. It’s really about alienating the base.” Hart, a longtime Democratic consultant, said that he doesn’t see how his party has any hope of closing the enthusiasm gap “if you vote no” on the party’s healthcare legislation.

Rather than the backlash Republican strategists are predicting for Democrats in the House and Senate who support the president on healthcare, the real danger is in not supporting him. The loss of key constituencies who write checks, organize precincts and provide the ground troops critical to any election will far outweigh the damage of losing some independent votes. Democrats really have no choice but to deliver for their base. Some unions and labor groups that have been on the sidelines because the bill was not completely to their liking — didn’t cover enough people, didn’t provide the safety net they wanted, ignored the public option and/or taxed the premium plans unions have settled for instead of raises in recent negotiations with large employers — have come off the bench now and are urging Democrats they have supported to support the president. Something, it seems, is better than nothing.

And as for the lukewarm support independents and conservative Democrats give to healthcare reform, this too shall pass. There has been such a loud debate over this legislation, with wild charges and countercharges all gleefully reported in the press, that people are confused. Most have little understanding of the details of the legislation. Few see just how it is going to help them achieve more security. But as with many contentious social issues in recent history, voters will grow more comfortable with the bill once it is law.

Of even more importance is the fact that voters will be glad to be done with healthcare and will demand that their government focus on jobs. That is their biggest concern right now, and if Democrats focus on that issue, all the Republican hand-wringing over healthcare repeal will be off message.

The challenge Democrats face is getting healthcare done and moving quickly to put people back to work. If they do that, they’ll lose a normal number of party-in-power midterm seats, but it won’t be the disaster Republicans are hoping for and the press is anxious to report.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com