Obama, Dems enjoy substantial public support on their healthcare proposal

Read that headline again.

Most of those who are gathering Thursday for the Obama-GOP healthcare summit, perhaps even the president himself, probably would regard my headline as wrong or exaggerated. Certainly it runs counter to the conventional wisdom — ranging from inside-the-Beltway MSM pundits, the GOP congressional leadership, all the across the spectrum to the far-right rants of Glenn Beck, Tea Partiers and the true believers at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington — that President Barack Obama and the Democrats face the opposition of substantial majorities of the American people on their comprehensive healthcare proposal.

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But the fact is, recent data in the fine print of the Feb. 4-8 Washington Post/ABC poll proves my headline is right. It also explains why so many people are wrong in thinking that the Democrats’ comprehensive approach lacks public support across the ideological spectrum.

The answer to the paradox between perception and reality is the difference between asking a general question about the Democrats’ proposal versus breaking down the proposal into specific and concrete component parts — specifically, the four most important parts.

Actually, even the general question, according to the Post/ABC poll, produces more positive results for the president and the Democrats than today’s CW would expect, and far better than was seen in most of the January polls, which showed double-digit negative gaps between supporters and opponents.

According to the Post/ABC poll, the general question as to whether Americans support or oppose the “proposed changes to [the] healthcare system being developed by the Congress and the Obama administration” — without any further specifics — results in a virtual split in public opinion: 46 percent support, 49 percent oppose, within the margin of error.

But then the poll goes further. It asks specific questions about four of the most controversial aspects of comprehensive healthcare reform — an employer mandate, an individual mandate, public subsidies to lower-income people and a universal insurance company mandate, regardless of pre-existing condition. (Actually, the House and Senate Democratic plans do not include an “employer mandate.”) Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is substantial public support for all four. Specifically:

(1) By a margin of more than three-to-one — 72 percent-27 percent — nearly three out of four Americans support the “employer mandate” — “requiring businesses to offer private health insurance for their full-time employees.” (To repeat, such an employer mandate is not included in either the House or the Senate-passed Democratic proposals.)

(2) By a 56-43 percent margin, a substantial majority of all Americans support both an “individual mandate” and public subsidies to lower-income Americans — i.e., “requiring all Americans to have health insurance, either from their employer or from another source, [and] with tax credits or other aid to help low-income people pay for it.”

(3) And by an overwhelming four-to-one margin — 80 percent to 19 — four out of five Americans would “require insurance companies to sell to all Americans regardless of pre-existing conditions.”

Now, are Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, GOP congressional leaders and Tea Partiers going to characterize these substantial majorities of Americans — from 56 to 80 percent — “socialists”? (It is a historical fact that conservatives in the 1930s referred to Social Security as “socialism” and in the 1960s characterized Medicare as “socialized medicine.” It seems, however, that even Beck and the far right haven’t yet suggested the abolition of Social Security or Medicare; much less GOP congressional leaders.)

So how should this data affect Thursday’s healthcare summit?

It should not surprise readers of this column that I do not favor rolling over conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats who have doubts about the Democratic comprehensive plan, even though its concrete core elements appear to have such substantial public support when each is presented separately. Because left out of the Post’s questions, which undoubtedly biases the results, is the fact that many people will have to pay higher taxes (or “fees”) under this program and that deficits, at least in the short term, will rise. And, most important, this poll, like all other polls, show substantial support for Democrats “working with Republicans” to pass a healthcare bill — by a 57-36 percent margin.

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Thus the Democrats and Republicans need to find a middle ground, one based on the three objectives of improved competition, transparency principles and cost-cutting reforms, such as a national insurance exchanges, a required option for everyone to purchase the lower-cost Federal Employee Healthcare policies on such exchanges, improved oversight of insurance company premium increases and denial of coverage and a guaranteed lower-lower cost option available to everyone, such as the Blue Cross/Blue Shield policies that are currently available to every member of Congress and every federal employee.

Such an approach could get 75 votes in the Senate and 300 votes in the House — and end up a “win-win” for both Democrats and Republicans — and especially for the American people, who want an end to the bitter partisanship that has stalemated government in Washington — and actually result in the passage of a healthcare reform bill this year, even if it is just a “first step on a long journey” toward comprehensive care for everyone.

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.