Democrats Angering Moderates and Independents on Health Care

Many issues fueled the fiery Massachusetts rebellion that handed Ted Kennedy’s seat to the Republicans, but none burned hotter or provoked more anger than President Obama’s healthcare takeover plan that has turned the nation’s most Democratic state against Obamacare.

More than half of all voters surveyed (52 percent) as they left voting places Tuesday said they opposed the Democrat’s health care bill, and 42 percent said they voted to help Scott Brown stop them from enacting it into law, according to statewide exit polls.

“Even in liberal Massachusetts, most voters are opposed to it. If it’s not popular in Massachusetts, it’s really not popular anywhere,” Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm in Raleigh, N.C., told The Wall Street Journal.

But Democratic leaders were defiant after Tuesday’s decisive rejection of Barack Obama’s huge government-run plan by the voters in the heavily-Democratic state who embraced Scott Brown’s sworn pledge to be the GOP’s 41st senator to say no to the bill. While some Democrats urged a change in direction and compromise, or even breaking with their party to oppose Obamacare, their leadership stubbornly vowed to push through their bill by hook or crook.

“Let’s remove all doubt. We will have health care one way or the other,” vowed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Nevertheless, by week’s end, cracks were emerging in the Democrats’ battelines as vulnerable incumbents were thinking more about their very political survival than falling on their swords for Barack Obama’s place in history.

“It’s probably back to the drawing board on health care,” liberal Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, told a local reporter. Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt, in an interview on MSNBC, urged his party leaders to dump the bill in favor of a smaller, less costly piecemeal plan that can appeal to Republicans.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat, said Democratic leaders were “whistling past the graveyard” if they still believed that the political desertion of their party’s independents would not force Democrats to rethink the party’s entire approach to health care.

Perhaps the strongest Democratic lecture on the dangers of Obama’s health care push came from Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who postures himself as a party moderate but who voted for Obamacare in the Senate.

Bayh was singing a different tune last week. “There’s going to be a tendency on the part of our people to be in denial about all this,” he told ABC News, but “if you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wake-up call, there’s no hope of waking up.”

The party’s hard left turn has angered and alienated moderates and independents, Bayh said. “It’s why moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren’t buying our message,” he said. “Whenever you have just the furthest left elements of the Democratic party attempting to impose their will on the rest of the country, that’s not going to work too well.”

When Scott Brown was campaigning, he found strong opposition to the Democrats’s health care plans wherever he spoke. Voters believed that it cost too much, would drive up taxes on businesses and workers, push health care costs even higher, cut Medicare benefits and services, and impose regulations that would severely reduce health care quality and drive the government more deeply into debt.

“The number one issue for Scott Brown was his pledge to be the 41st vote against Obamacare. He has been unequivocal on this. His pledge was in response to the very strong message he got from voters as he campaigned across Massachusetts that they want to stop this massive bill from being enacted,” said Grace-Marie Turner, a veteran health care policy analyst at the Galen Institute.

Last summer, when lawmakers went home for the August recess, they got an earful of complaints from tea party protesters and other constituents who packed town hall meetings across the country. Since then, however, Democrats have tuned out what their own voters were saying about the bills they have passed over a majority of their constituents’ objections.

“Congress has not been listening to the American people for months as they have been saying every way they can that they don’t want government-controlled health care,” Turner said. “But the president and Congress have been plowing ahead, determined to enact it anyway, even as public support continued to fall.”

The Democrats have several options how to do this that American Enterprise Institute analyst Norm Ornstein says are “three lousy options.”

One of them is for the House to vote for the Senate bill and send it on to the president for his signature, then fix the bill’s deficiencies later in a followup measure. But the House bill squeaked through by only five votes and there is much in the Senate bill that House members hate, like the $100 million Medicaid payoff to Nebraska to buy Sen. Ben Nelson’s vote that gave Democrats the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster.

“There will be Republican catcalls that Congress is using dubious means to pass a bill that has just been politicallly repudiated, and the House votes just may not be there this time,” writes liberal crusader Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect magazine.

Obviously, there is little or no time to cobble a new bill together, have it scored by the Congressional Budget Office and then have a vote before Brown is seated. But President Obama, in an interview with ABC News after Tuesday’s political earthquake. seemed to suggest that he could accept a scaled-down, less costly bill with some of his main provisions intact, incuding his regulation of the insurance industry.

But any watering down of Obamacare risks angering party liberals in both houses, especially in the House where liberals may refuse to vote for any bill that does not contain some kind of federal health care program for the uninsured. Vulnerable House Democrats are already making noises that they may not be onboard this time around as district polls back home show growing opposition to Obamacare. A Democratic campaign consultant is telling his clients to “jump ship now,” the Washington Post reported. Listing a number of House Democrats who are trailing their Republican challengers, the National Republican Congressional Committee put out a broadside warning that “Vulnerable Democrats who continue too back their party’s reckless healthcare push will make the Massachusetts special election look like a walk in the park.”

Meantime, House and Senate Republicans know the sound of retreat when they hear it and are standing firm. The market-oriented health care reforms they champion — letting individuals deduct their medical expenses from their taxes, allowing insurance companies to operate across state lines, tort reform to reduce costly malpractice suits to reduce health care costs — aren’t being considered by the Democrats and will never be. This impasse can only be settled at the ballot box in November when GOP officials are betting that Democrats will suffer heavy losses in the House and the Senate.

It is hard to overstate how far the political needle has swung away from the Democrats as a result of the health care battle. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds that fully two-thirds of independent voters now say they’d prefer a Congress run by Republicans. On health care alone, The Washington Post/ABC News found that only 24 percent of voters surveyed strongly appproved of the way Obama was handling health care and 43 percent disapproved. Among independents, only 20 percent approved and 46 percent disapproved.

Liberals are clearly disenchanted and confused about how the health care battle is going.

“It is hard to know which will be the worse political defeat — losing the bill and looking weak, or passing it and leaving it as a pinata for Republicans to attack between now and November,” a deeply pessimistic Bob Kuttner writes in the Huffington Post website.

The way the Democrats’ health care reform effort is playing itself out, it looks like Scott Brown’s stunning Senate election in Massachusetts is the first of many upsets to come.