For GOP, Health Care Bill Looks Riskier by the Day

Stuart Rothenberg July 5, 2017 · 4:01 PM EDT

The new Republican National Committee web video “Where’s Their Plan?” purports to place the onus for the nation’s health care crisis on Democrats, but instead shows how far off base the RNC is in understanding how the issue is likely to play next year if the party can’t pass a popular replacement plan.

The video, which runs about 80 seconds, starts off with TV clips of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) and five high-profile Democrats –  former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Al Franken and former president Bill Clinton – acknowledging that Obamacare “has problems” and needs to be fixed. 

Next come five clips of cable TV anchors and analysts, all or most from CNN, asking why Democrats have not offered solutions or asserting that they haven’t.

The video ends with two assertions and one question – delivered individually in large white lettering on a larger red background: Democrats know Obamacare is broken. We have a plan to fix it. Where’s their plan?

That’s the video.

There are plenty of problems with the video, but by far the biggest are that (1) Americans are not now clamoring for Congress to repeal Obamacare and (2) it is unlikely that Democrats need a plan to replace it.

The replacement question is crucial, and the RNC is simply way off base, if history offers any lessons.

When one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, voters have always blamed that party for what it has done or not done. That’s why midterm electoral waves have tended to occur during the intersection of political dissatisfaction and one-party control, which is exactly what happened in 1958, 1994, 2006 and 2010.

The party in power during a midterm almost always tries to blame the opposition. Sometimes the focus is on the previous president. Sometimes it is on the opposition party’s congressional leadership or its alleged “obstruction.” But a party in trouble with voters always looks to blame someone else. 

This strategy rarely works, because voters generally see the party in charge as responsible for the state of the country and for what it has done over the previous two years. At the very least, the new administration and Congress should have improved things by dealing with the major issues of the day – and by keeping its promises.

“We couldn’t get anything done because the other party wouldn’t cooperate” is hardly an easy sell when one party controls the House, the Senate and the presidency, even if there is sometimes a kernel of truth to it.

In fact, while it might be useful for Democrats to have some proposals for “fixing” Obamacare, it isn’t vital that they do so, and proposing a major overhaul of the existing health care law would very likely offer Republicans a life preserver. 

A full-blown Democratic plan would give Republicans something to shoot at, possibly allowing them to define the midterm elections as a choice between the two parties’ plans and approaches, including coverage but also cost.

The opposition’s great advantage in any debate is that it doesn’t have to offer a detailed alternative to the party in control’s plan. Voters know – or at least believe – that the party in control of government, and particularly the White House, has the responsibility to offer an agenda and enact it.

Republicans complained for years about Obamacare and even voted to repeal it, but they never offered a detailed alternative to replace it. They knew they did not have to.

The problem is even worse now for Republicans because the Affordable Care Act is far more popular than the current GOP proposal, which puts GOP legislators in the unappealing place of needing to pass a new plan to please the Trump/GOP base while at the same time risking alienating the larger electorate that prefers Obamacare and is worried about their coverage under a new law.

In the most recent Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, 51 percent of respondents (adults) had a favorable view of the ACA, compared to 41 percent who had an unfavorable view. Among Republicans, only 19 percent had a favorable view, while 77 percent had an unfavorable view. 

Those numbers put the GOP in a big squeeze. The party’s base wants repeal and replace, but all voters – and about one in five GOP voters – have a favorable view of Obamacare.

Of course, these numbers could change. A revised Republican health care plan could generate more support. But for now, the health care fight seems to pit the GOP and its Trump/conservative base, which is primarily concerned about lower taxes and less government, against the larger electorate, which is more concerned about access to coverage and the quality of care.

The RNC video complaining that Democrats haven’t offered a plan doesn’t deal with how voters feel and how they traditionally behave.