Roll Call: Kondracke: Will Democrats Fare Worse With or Without Passing Obamacare?

Posted on March 11, 2010

President Barack Obama has taken to nonstop demonizing of the insurance industry — a sign of desperation over the prospects of passing health care reform.

Meanwhile, some Republicans say that if Obama succeeds in persuading Democrats to push reform through Congress on a party-line basis, a GOP battle cry of “Repeal It!” will sweep the 2010 elections.

The Senate’s No. 3 Republican leader, Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a man not known for hyperbole, told me, “I think it is the making of a political wipeout” for Democrats “if they pass this unpopular bill” and “jam it through in a partisan way.”

“I could be wrong, but based on 40 years in politics, I believe it will become the symbol of an overreaching Washington and will define every single Congressional race,” he said.

“The only thing I can remember that’s like it is the Watergate election of 1974,” when Republicans lost 49 House seats, four Senate seats and were left with only 12 governorships.

Democratic leaders are now privately admitting they probably can’t get health care legislation to Obama’s desk by March 18, when he is to leave on a trip to Asia and will be unable to do essential personal lobbying.

Some well-connected Democratic lobbyists are now convinced the measure has only a 1 in 3 chance of passing at all — dragged down by distrust between the House and Senate, differences over abortion language, fear among moderates over bad polls and the difficulty of passing a reconciliation measure in the Senate.

If the House were to “eat” the Senate-passed version, Obama and Democrats would achieve reform. But the House is insisting on the Senate’s passing a reconciliation bill to fix its work — and Senators are not sure they can, even though it takes only 51 votes.

So, the president is intensively lobbying Members by arguing that Democrats will be doomed if they don’t pass his signature initiative, while publicly thrashing the insurance industry, a favorite Democratic whipping boy.

In one speech on Monday, Obama condemned insurance companies 22 times, demanding to know, “How much higher do premiums have to get before we do something about it?”

And his Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, has piled on with demands that insurance companies explain why insurance rates are rising and what their profit margins are.

Actually, they have done so rather persuasively — using statistics from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, part of Sebelius’ own department.

CMS figures show that insurance costs closely track the underlying — and surging — costs for hospitals, doctors and drugs.

National health spending rose a whopping 5.7 percent in 2009, according to a February CMS report, and the “primary drivers” were a 5.9 percent increase in hospital costs, a 5.2 percent increase for drugs and 6.3 percent for physician care.

Insurance company administrative costs were not even mentioned as a driver — they dropped 2 percent last year — and abundant evidence indicates that industry profit margins run 3 percent to 4 percent, compared with 20 percent for drug companies and an average 13 percent for the health care industry.

Obama is now proposing to create a new agency to cap insurance premiums — an idea opposed by state health commissioners who worry that federal price controls will render companies insolvent.

That may, in fact, be the whole idea: drive the private insurance industry into bankruptcy so “public plans” can take over, perhaps leading to the single-payer system that liberals favor.

There is limited polling to indicate whether Alexander is right that Democrats will get wiped out if they jam health care through Congress — or that they’ll suffer if they don’t.

Democrats have been haunted by their experience in 1994, after the defeat of Bill Clinton’s health plan, when they lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats.

A poll of 11 swing districts by the GOP firm Tarrance Group for a client named StartOver showed that disapproval of Obamacare outpaces approval by 6 to 28 points.

More than 70 percent of respondents in every district believed their taxes would rise, and 63 percent to 81 percent said that how Members of Congress vote on health care will matter “greatly” in the election.

The 11 districts, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Colorado and Arizona, are all occupied by Democrats who took them from Republicans in the past two elections.

Nationally, the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows that 41 percent of voters favor Obamacare and 49 percent oppose it. The generic Congressional ballot is tied — a 10-point drop for Democrats over the past year.

My hunch, on the question of whether Democrats will be worse off passing health care or not passing it: They will be damned if they do, but damned worse if they don’t, demonstrating that they can’t govern even with overwhelming dominance of the government and wasting two years without fixing the job-short economy.