Healthcare: Reform or move on

Let’s be honest. Healthcare reform doesn’t quite sell itself. With few exceptions, more voters have disliked the plan than liked it in polls over the last several years. But at the same time, even fewer voters want the law repealed or defunded. Hence, Republican attempts to take those actions are strategically inexplicable. They have enjoyed some advantage by just complaining about Democrats’ passing the law. Why dilute that by taking an even less popular position themselves?

The Kaiser Foundation has been tracking feelings about the Affordable Care Act since shortly after it was enacted. Since the advent of 2011, on only three of 25 occasions were voters even slightly more likely to feel favorably rather than unfavorably about it. The most recent indication of plurality support came just after the election, while the current measurement shows voters unfavorable by a net 5 points.

These numbers hardly reflect hatred of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, most polls find only rather narrow pluralities opposed to the law as a whole. In a Quinnipiac poll at the end of March, a 46 percent plurality, but not a majority, disapproved of the law, while 41 percent approved. A CNN/ORC poll asked whether people favored or opposed all or most of the elements of the law and found a 51 percent majority supporting most aspects of the law, with 44 percent opposed to all or most of its planks.

Of course, half the country admits it does not know enough about the healthcare reform law to determine whether it will help or hurt them. So a good many of the judgments voters have reached are admittedly uninformed and therefore potentially malleable.

So despite all the debate and controversy, the hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and the years of discussion and messaging, many Americans remain merely ambivalent. Democrats have certainly not succeeded in selling the law as the remarkable reform it is, while the GOP has not rendered it radioactive either. 

But while voters narrowly agree with the GOPs opposition, they reject Republicans’ current tactics. Voters want neither to repeal nor defund the law. Fox News finds only about 30 percent who favor outright repeal. Now, to be sure, only about 20 percent want the law left completely unchanged, while 20 percent want the law “expanded.” The CBS/New York Times poll found about a third in favor of complete repeal.

Voters also oppose GOP efforts to defund ObamaCare. The Kaiser Foundation found just 31 percent approve of Congress “cutting off funding as a way to stop some or all of health reform from being put into place.” Only a bare majority of Republicans approve of a funding cutoff. Nearly 6 in 10 voters — 58 percent — disapprove of this tactic.

In 2010, and to a much lesser extent in 2012, Democrats paid a price for healthcare reform — a sacrifice many said they were willing to make because of the overriding importance of the achievement. It would be hard for Republicans to sustain those attacks indefinitely as voters tire of hearing the same argument in election after election. Yet, Democrats can’t give up on efforts to make the law’s benefits clear to the American people.

By focusing on the unpopular repeal or defunding approaches, however, Republicans risk transforming what has been a strength for them into a weakness. And because there is no realistic chance of repealing the Affordable Care Act, this politically foolish strategy can only represent the triumph of ideology — and rejectionism over good sense. It’s not good for Republicans, it’s not good for the country  and it won’t hurt Democrats.

So why do it?

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.