This year Obama has handed Republicans a one-item Contract with America, an item a majority of the public supports–opposition to, and therefore repeal of, Obamacare. ~Bill Kristol
Well, it is easier to remember than having to recite the different items House Republicans pledged to vote on once they were in the majority. It might be worth noting at this point that a very small percentage of the electorate was even aware of the Contract in 1994, and it mattered to even fewer voters. Official mythology notwithstanding, the Contract with America was not a major factor in the election outcome sixteen years ago. Much of it involved transparency and eliminating waste, which are were all very well and good but which also had almost nothing to do with Republican success in that election.
Proposing the repeal of a major piece of domestic legislation would probably have a much bigger impact one way or the other. The mistake Kristol makes here is that he takes the topline result showing such-and-such a percentage is opposed to the Senate bill, and then he simply declares that this is a pro-repeal constituency. What we find when we look more closely at recent polling on the subject is that there is no majority, much less an overwhelming one, that would want to return to the status quo. After all, that is what a repeal movement would have to be working towards. According to the last NBC/WSJ poll conducted earlier this month, 48% said that “Barack Obama’s health care plan” was a “bad idea” and just 36% said it was a “good idea.” In the same poll, 46% said that it would still be better to pass the current plan and only 45% wanted to keep things as they are.
The electoral implications are murky at best. 34% of respondents would be less likely to vote for a representative if he voted with the GOP against the bill, and 31% would be more likely, but 37% would be more likely to vote for a pro-repeal candidate as opposeds to the 33% who would be less likely. So voting against the bill in Congress may be a net negative for actual members of Congress, but campaigning for repeal seems to offer a small advantage. There does not seem to be much obvious advantage one way or the other. What we see here is that dedicated, ideological partisans are going to vote the way we would expect them to vote, and a large portion of the electorate claims to be unmoved by a politician’s position on the health care bill.
If the bill failed to pass, 47% said that Congress should immediately resume work on health care legislation, and 23% favored doing this within the next couple of years. What Republicans might profitably do is to try to claim to be the party in favor of reforming a bill that contains one or more items that many people dislike. This lacks the grandiosity and drama of pushing for total repeal, but it would make it possible for them to channel the unpopularity of certain elements in the bill into support for altering the legislation.
The reality is that the constituency for repeal makes up something like 25-30% of the electorate. These are the people who for various reasons think it is simply unnecessary or wrong for the government to intervene any more than it already does in the health care market. These are the people who think that there should be no health care legislation. By and large, they are rank-and-file Republicans and the core of the party’s base. They are used to being whipped up in opposition to an entire program, piece of legislation or judicial ruling and promised abolition, repeal or overturning. The party never delivers on these things. For one thing, it doesn’t have to, because the mere promise that it will pursue them later keeps the voters coming back. Second, the party sees no advantage in identifying itself completely with its most ideological supporters, who have already proven that they will never abandon it no matter what it does. Finally, there is too much risk of alienating the rest of the public in the process.
After years and decades working to build a substantial Republican majority in both houses, most of these voters typically get little or nothing for all of their time and work, because the party does not actually represent the concrete interests of most of its voters, and then the discredited leadership that has misled them for years issues a rallying cry to give Republicans more power yet again. Frankly, health care repeal is another one of these political fantasies Republican and conservative leaders use to keep their supporters engaged and intent on turning out to vote. “Just keep voting Republican, and any day now we will repeal that awful health care bill…” Obviously, the party will have an incentive to reap the electoral rewards of whipping up the base while putting off repeal for as long as possible. Proposing repeal without delivering it will keep the party’s supporters angry and mobilized, and the repeated disappointment of their expectations will actually lock them into supporting the GOP ever more reliably. In the meantime, the rest of the electorate adjusts and accommodates itself to the new entitlement, and repeal goes in a fairly short time from being a far-fetched but practical position to something that no elected representative from a competitive district would ever advocate.
James Joyner provides another explanation why opposition to this bill is not going to translate into a straightforward repeal movement:
[T]he problem for a Repeal movement is that the anti-HCR coalition is one of exceedingly strange bedfellows, ranging from principled opposition to further government involvement in the system, Progressives who insist on the public option, fair-minded types who don’t like the parliamentary tricks involved, and those who intensely dislike one or more parts of the current proposal. Once a bill is passed, many of those people will either melt away or start work on further socializing our health care system.
Meanwhile, many of the problems the bill could create are pushed off into the future by several years by design. Several popular changes are front-loaded and take effect as soon as the bill is signed into law. Discontent with the bill will come later as all of its measures take effect after the repeal strategy has been tried and found electorally lacking.