Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The political campaign and the future of health reform

The headline story in the June 28, 2010 issue of the Kansas City Star, by Dave Helling and Steve Kraske, is “Mailings turn aggressive”. It is about direct mail campaigns by those seeking elective office, how they have become a major part of the campaigning, and how the content is almost entirely negative – and sometimes hard to believe. For example, a state legislator running for Congress has a mailer attacking his primary opponent as a “Nancy Pelosi Democrat”, although the only obvious similarity this “staunch conservative” former legislator has with Ms. Pelosi is that they are both women.

The more interesting aspect is not the attack aspect of the ads, but that most of the non-attack “positive” campaigning, touting the candidates’ strengths and thus implicitly responding to attacks, is (among Republicans) to emphasize their negativity. Jerry Moran, a Republican congressman from Kansas’ “Big First” district is running against Todd Tiahrt, congressman from the 4th district (Wichita), for the Senate seat of Sam Brownback (who is odds-on favorite to be our next governor). Both have essentially the same, straight-down-the-Republican-line voting record, but Tiahrt has accused Moran of being less conservative. A recent Moran ad indicates that he fights for Kansas and then lists all the things he has opposed – which is essentially everything that the Obama administration has done. Moran is a nice, personable man and presumably has some good positive ideas, but apparently in the campaign it is not cost effective to promote them. (Note that the Tiahrt campaign takes the same tack, except when attacking Moran for not being conservative enough.) In the Republican primary proudly embracing charter membership in the “Party of NO” is apparently the name of the game, It is possible that in some parts of the country, candidates in the general election will feel pressure to say what they are for, but only if absolutely necessary. In Kansas, where the Republican nominee is pretty much guaranteed victory in most venues, it probably won’t.

In a recent article in Health Affairs, “The political challenges that may undermine health reform”[1], Theda Skocpol ties some of these trends to the future implementation of health reform. She accepts that there will be Republican gains, but also discusses the ways in which Democrats will likely respond, hoping to blunt those gains and prevent a complete Republican takeover of Congress. In its absence, she notes it is likely that most of the part’s of PPACA will be implemented, slowly and quietly, although some of the parts most likely to engage support (elimination of discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions on the individual market and allowing children to stay on their parents’ policies until 26) are front-loaded, going into effect this year. Among the most interesting things she says (to me, a non-political scientist), is that “Political scientists have long know that Americans are what is called ‘operational liberals’; they like specific government benefits. Yet these same Americans are also ideologically conservative, when arguments about government versus the free marked are posed in general rhetorical terms.”

Actually, this makes it almost sound like Americans are “operationally selfish”. Indeed there are many who are, like the family physician I knew in Texas who would mostly rant against the liberals in Washington and the need to elect more conservative Texans, until, in a cost-saving measure pushed through by those fiscal conservatives, the government delayed sending out Medicare payments to physicians. That was intolerable to him! Dr. Skocpol continues: “That is why we will see Republicans doing all they can to keep the argument at the systemic level through early 2012, when they hope to elect a president who will support repeal or make fundamental changes in the 2010 legislation.” No question that arguing against Big Government is going to win more votes than opposing Medicare, or Social Security. And few of the reliably conservative Republican farmers in Kansas (or elsewhere) are going to be won over by arguments against agricultural subsidies. In Missouri, which has more Democrats than Kansas but has a legislature controlled by Republicans, a statewide referendum is about to take place which would prohibit the federal government from forcing people to purchase health insurance. It is being sold with “freedom” arguments, and might well be unconstitutional, but it will be interesting to see how people vote. When turnout is light, the poor and uninsured are less likely to turn out than those who, like the bill’s legislative sponsors, already have insurance; in particular older voters, already receiving Big Government Socialized Medicine Medicare are likely to vote.

While there is much to criticize in PPACA (done very well by John Geyman, “Hijacked: Stolen health care reform V” in the Huffington Post), there is definitely some good. The insurance companies have backed off their threats to not cover people (or at least children) with pre-existing condition, suggesting that people will begin to see some real benefits. The real issue is seen in Dr. Skocpol’s final sentence, above; the Republicans are running on general conservative principles, but should they gain power they will implement a very anti-regular-people agenda, as was done under the Bush administration. This is not limited to health care; while “everyone” (me, for sure!) hates the bankers who brought on the financial crisis (see Maureen Dowd in the NY Times, July 28, 2010: “Washington gave the Wall Street banks billions, and, in return, they stabbed us in the back, handing out a fortune in bonuses to the grifters who almost wrecked our economy”), the Republican party leadership, far from punishing them or reining them in, has tried to block legislation that would even gently restrict their most outrageous activities.

If we are lucky, maybe voters in Missouri and in other places will show that “operational liberals” who “like specific government benefits” are not all like that Texas doctor, and will also support specific benefits that help others. We have seen many polls showing that a majority of Americans favor universal health care even for all, so the sense of common purpose is not dead. Maybe they won’t, but we can hope.

[1] Health Affairs, July 2010; 29(7):1289-91.

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