Does new debate give Dems a second chance to sell health care reform?

WASHINGTON–Rep. Joe Courtney recently found himself testifying before a House committee about a family physician from Hebron who, thanks to small-business tax credits included in the health care reform law, will be getting a $4,000 break this year.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro was at the Milford Senior Center last week highlighting the health overhaul’s benefits for seniors, including free access to preventive care and a $250 rebate for prescription drug coverage.

It is the Republicans who have pushed health care reform back into the national spotlight, with a House vote set for this week on repealing the law. But Democrats like DeLauro and Courtney say it’s just as much to their advantage as it is to the GOP’s to have a fresh debate over this still-controversial law.

“There are still a lot of misconceptions about the new law,” said DeLauro, adding that at her Milford event, she was asked about so-called “death panels,” something that was never included in the law but that critics used to drum up opposition.

“If people knew exactly what was in the law, and how it will improve their lives,” DeLauro said, she believes health reform would be more popular.

Indeed, Democrats say this week’s debate offers up a second chance to win the public-relations battle over health reform, which they concede they botched the first time around.

Republicans say that’s wishful thinking, and the public won’t like the health care law the second time around any better than the first.

The GOP has titled their bill the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” And in their view, this week’s debate will allow Republicans to fulfill a campaign pledge, galvanize their base, and set in motion a more targeted attack on the health care overhaul.

Neither side disputes that the health overhaul is still a deeply divisive measure almost a year after it was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The public’s first impressions of the law were not good, shaped by a messy political process, last-minute legislative deal-making, and a series of bitterly partisan votes. “That bill was so confusing, and the process was not a very pretty picture,” then-Sen. Chris Dodd, who helped shepherd the bill through the Senate, acknowledged in an interview last year.

At the time, Democrats said the more people learned about the overhaul, the more they would like it.

But in fact, public opinion has not moved much since last spring. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in April 2010, a month after the reform bill became law, found that 46 percent of the public viewed it favorably, while 40 percent had unfavorable perceptions.

The foundation’s most recent survey, in December 2010, found that 42 percent of respondents had a positive view of health reform and 41 percent unfavorable.

“This pattern has been roughly stable over the eight months since passage, suggesting that neither side has been able to make a definitive case for or against the bill,” Kaiser’s pollsters concluded.

Similarly, a January Gallup survey found that 46 percent of Americans want their congressman to vote in favor of repeal, while 40 percent want the bill to stand. Not surprisingly, opinion falls largely along party lines, with Republicans supporting repeal and Democrats against.

“It’s a real mixed bag,” said Courtney, D-2nd District, who added that the grumbling isn’t confined to the right.

“I’ve had calls in just the last couple of weeks from people who want me to introduce a single-payer bill,” he said. “So there are people on the left who are still really disappointed with the bill.”

He said the muddled legislative process probably couldn’t be helped.

“But once it became an actual law, there really was an opportunity to do a better job explaining the bill.” Instead, Courtney said, the effort to sell the bill has been “very sporadic” and “discombobulated.”

In particular, he said the White House, with its big bully pulpit, did not do enough to pitch the reform package.

Which is why, he and others say, this week’s rehashing of the law could be a boon for proponents, not just detractors.

“Democrats have a real opportunity here,” DeLauro said. “Talk to small business owners, talk to seniors, talk to young adults-people are starting to understand and appreciate the benefits of health care reform.”

She said Democrats can use the debate to walk the public through the most popular elements of the law. Those include new consumer protections now in effect that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage to children with pre-existing conditions, barring lifetime caps on claims for people with serious illnesses, and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ policies until age 26.

“The Republicans want to take [those benefits] away,” DeLauro said. The fresh debate will help Americans understand that, she said, “and I think will respond positively to what we are saying.”

Although public opinion seems relatively fixed, DeLauro said there is still an opportunity to move that needle.

“People are beginning to feel the benefits, and we need to keep working to show how transformative this law is for the country,” she said.

But opponents of the law say the hill for Democrats is steeper than ever.

“They’re whistling in the dark,” said Joseph Antos, a health care expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

He said Democrats’ contention that they didn’t have the right message the first time around is “baloney.” The truth is they didn’t have the right legislative product, he said, and that’s why public opinion is so mixed.

Antos also argued that Americans want to know what the measure is going to do for them right now. And because much of the health care law doesn’t go into effective until 2014, Democrats still don’t have a good answer to that question.

“What do they have to sell?” he asked. Public opinion is “not more malleable than it was last week or in November,” when Democrats lost 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats.

In that campaign, many Democrats shied away from touting the health care law, fearing it had become politically toxic, notes Henry Aaron, a health care policy expert at the liberal Brookings Institution.

That was yet another political mistake, Aaron argued. “There’s no running away from it. This is the premier achievement of the president and Democrats in Congress,” he said.

With this rare chance at a do-over, Aaron said, the dynamics could be different.

In the run-up to reform’s passage, “Democrats spent all of their time arguing with each other about items that didn’t end up in the bill–the public option, abortion, illegal aliens,” Aaron said. “Meanwhile, Republicans had free fire to define the issue in the minds of the American public–and they did a good job.”

This time around, “Democrats don’t have the disadvantage of having to fight with each other. There’s a law out there and you are either for it… or you’re against it,” said Aaron, who will be holding a live chat on the repeal effort this week. Democrats, he said, can frame the debate as “Do we go back to the status quo? Or do we go forward?”

But, he said, it’s still unclear whether Democrats have the political will and the organizational firepower to “go out and sell the sucker.”

Either way, “this issue is going to come back in 2012,” Aaron predicted. “And in that election once again, domestically we’re going to hold a referendum on health reform.”