The final debate

December is typically a month for looking backward — a time to take account of the year as it draws to an end. But before members of Congress immerse themselves in 2009’s top 10 news stories or 100 most outrageous celebrity moments, they should look to the year ahead.

October, to be specific.

That’s when the final candidate debates of the midterm elections will be televised. Chances are there will be a question or two about health reform.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the legislation passes. Candidates won’t be debating the theoretical, but the empirical. After nine or 10 months under the new law, Americans will see for themselves whether reform was worthwhile or not.

What will have changed? First, it will be illegal for insurance companies to limit the coverage that patients can receive in a lifetime. Preventive care will be fully covered. Americans will no longer lose their coverage just because they get sick. Seniors will pay less out of pocket for prescription drugs.

But just as important is what voters will not see happen. Contrary to the breathless warnings by insurance companies and their Republican allies, those who like their current plan won’t be forced to leave it; nor will they forfeit their choice of doctor. Grandma’s life will not be cut short by the heartless verdict of a government death panel. And Medicare recipients won’t see their benefits shredded to help pay for massage therapy or acupuncture for illegal immigrants.

Desperate to protect the status quo, Republicans suggest that voters are with them. Indeed, an ABC News-Washington Post survey this week found that respondents, based on what they know now, oppose the president’s health reform plan by a seven-point margin. That matches the results of a private survey I saw recently.

But polling can only tell us where voters are now, not where they will be next fall. Many Americans aren’t going to pledge their support for legislation that’s still a work in progress. Their default position may be opposition, but they hold out hope that their concerns will be addressed before a final vote is taken.

If you’re shopping for a new car, walking out of the showroom doesn’t mean you’ve given up the dream of getting that new ride. You may just be hoping the dealer reconsiders your bid for a free sunroof or seat-warmer.

That’s why the private survey dug deeper. And undecided Democrats should take note.

When asked whether they’d support a Democratic congressional candidate who backed reform or a Republican candidate who opposed it, voters chose the generic Democrat by a six-point margin. But when asked if they’d support a Democratic candidate who opposed reform or a Republican who also opposed it — guess what? Voters chose the Republican by a 14-point margin.

Why such a dramatic shift? To paraphrase a quote attributed to Harry Truman, when voters have a choice between a Republican and a Democrat imitating a Republican, they’ll go with the real thing.

As Congress moves towards its last, best chance to reform our healthcare system, candidates should bear something in mind.
Voters will be watching that debate next October. And given a choice between a defender of the status quo and a politician imitating one, they may just go with the real thing.

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.