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Obamacare: Clearly and Consistently Negative

Democrats have no way out of this one.

By 1.13.14

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Political parties’ real electoral danger isn’t overwhelmingly negative public opinion, but opinion clearly and consistently negative. The reason is obvious: Political parties are neither stupid enough — nor long survive — taking hugely unpopular positions. The bad news is Obamacare looks to be the kind of clearly and consistently negative issue that leaves the administration and Democrats damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

The political landscape clearly shows political parties are more likely to face political difficulties from issues that decidedly and consistently run against them. Most contentious issues exist and persist with both parties hovering around majority support for their stances. The environment, tax, and spending — among others — all devolve into stances that leave each party near victory.

This happens for the same reason there are no slow gazelles: Lions eat them. Lop-sided issues are losers for one side, so no political party embrace them. It takes two to tango in politics, and you can’t find a partner on the wrong side of a landslide. As a result, parties either fold an overwhelmingly bad hand, or they shuffle the issue’s cards, until they find positions that put them at least right around the midpoint of popularity.

Ordinarily, presidential elections show parties bunching around relatively bare majorities. What we politically term decisive elections, would not be so in any other context. 

Presidential elections are evidence of just how this works. History’s biggest presidential landslide in a contested election was Lyndon Johnson’s in 1964 with 61% of the popular vote. Four years later, Democrats lost the White House.

Politics’ real danger, then, is to be consistently on the wrong side of a clear, but not overwhelming, divide. These occur when you can’t push your position closer to the majority-held one, but still hold a sizeable enough stake so that you can’t let go. 

Such appears to be what Obamacare is becoming for the administration and Democrats. According to Quinnipiac’s latest nationwide polling (released 1/8 of 1,487 registered voters; MOE, +/- 2.5%), just 40% of respondents support Obamacare, while 56% oppose it. When asked if they would be more or less likely to support a Congressional candidate who supported Obamacare, only 29% said they would be more likely, while 43% would be less likely.

This clearly negative trend is also proving consistent. In December polling: 39% supported Obamacare, while 57% opposed it. In November polling: 39% supported, versus 55% opposing it. 

Bad as these outcomes decidedly are, the worst problem for Democrats is twofold.

First, they are not overwhelmingly bad — in which case Obamacare could simply be abandoned. 

Second, respondents identifying themselves as Democrats in the Quinnipiac poll still support Obamacare — 80% in the latest poll. This compares to 89% of Republicans and 61% of Independents who oppose it. Even if Democrats were so inclined to cut their losses with the decided majority of Americans, their own supporters would not let them.

Of course succumbing to such a cut-and-run inclination has broader risks as well. 

In our current political climate, explaining means losing and admitting a mistake means: Explaining why you made it, when you first knew it, how you will fix it, and why you believe the fix will work — in light of the fact that you made the mistake in the first place. For a primer on the perils of this route, just look at Obamacare’s fumbled rollout: Imagine just how big the fallout could be if such an admission went to the law’s substance, instead of its unveiling. 

The administration and Democrats find themselves on the decidedly wrong end of the day’s dominant policy issue. Staying in their current position is a loser over the long-term, but their short-term alternatives are equally unattractive. Making matters worst of all, their own core supporters do not see the issue the same way the rest of America sees it, so Democrats would pay a price for playing to the majority. 

Just as America is coming to see few alternatives in Obamacare, Democrats see few alternatives for easily escaping it.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.