GOP Ready To Make Health Care 2010 Election Issue

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After the Senate votes on health care Friday morning, Congress next has to reconcile the House and Senate bills. Mathew Continetti, associate editor of The Weekly Standard, says that step is the Republicans' last chance to have the legislation fall apart. Contenetti tells Linda Wertheimer, since that is unlikely to happen, Republicans will turn health care into an electoral issue for 2010.


For more on the conservative view of the politics of health care, we reached Matthew Continetti. He is associate editor of The Weekly Standard. Good morning, Matt.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Associate Editor, The Weekly Standard): Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: As we have heard, the next step is for the House and Senate to reconcile health care bills. What do you - what are Republicans hoping will happen?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, I guess Republicans are going to turn to the power of prayer as the House - as the two bills move to conference. And I think they're - really, they can only hope that the bill collapses under its own weight, specifically, I think, on the issues of abortion and the issues of financing the health reform.

WERTHEIMER: Matt, what do you think the Republican Party ought to be doing going forward? I mean, they've complained that it was behind closed doors, sweetheart deals in the dead of night and so forth. But the reality is, I think, that if Republicans had wanted to participate, had wanted to change things, they could have. I mean, look at all the many, many weeks that Senator Max Baucus spent trying to court Senator Charles Grassley, one of the leading Republicans in the Senate. They didn't want to play.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Right. And, of course, Republicans go back and say, well, you know, we had ideas but the Democrats weren't listening to them. And the two sides are going to continue to play that blame game. But I think fundamentally, though, going into the 2010, you have that sense of persistent unease among the electorate at the direction of the country that we saw starting way back in 2006, and it persisted through the 2008 election. And, really, Obama was elected to change that atmosphere.

But I think that when you look at the polls and you see independents, in particular, trending away from Obama, you see the Republicans now more or less tied with the Democrats on the congressional generic ballot - if you go to the charts at, for example - you see, really, that there's a sense among the public that Obama has not changed the atmosphere in Washington. And the Republican critique of the process of the health care bill, the fact that all these side deals were made in order to secure the votes of all 60 Democrats in the Senate, I think plays into that argument.

WERTHEIMER: Obviously you're right the public support for this legislation has slipped. What about the possibility that passing a health care bill with some of the things that the president talked that will go into effect right away, people start thinking that this is pretty good? Could support swing back?

Mr. CONTINETTI: I think so, and I think passage will kind of stanch the bleeding of Democratic support, that Obama has kind of seen his numbers among Democrats go down over the last couple of months. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff who worked in the Clinton White House, points out that President Clinton's poll numbers stabilized after the passage of NAFTA in '93, and he's right about that. But what he doesn't talk about is that they continued to slide right after that.

I do think it's important, though. You look at earl economic signs, and the recovery - the overall economic recovery - may begin sooner and may actually be quite steeper than a lot of people are predicting. And so it would be a huge mistake for Republicans to begin their critique - or limit their critique of the Obama administration just to jobs and the high unemployment number, which could come down faster than a lot of people imagine.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think all this hostility is going to carry on? I mean, is there any possibility that it'll get serious enough that people will think common ground must somehow be found?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, the fact is, look, the fact is public opinion is on the Republican side. People - you mentioned, Linda, that support has dropped. Well, it's taken a nosedive. I mean, quite frankly, I always joked that the Democrats are playing health care limbo. How low can support for this bill go? And, really, I'm not sure it's going to spike - support for it will spike once it's passed. I think that...


Mr. CONTINETTI: ...the overall critique that this is a bill that raises taxes, that may change the relationship...


Mr. CONTINETTI: ...between patients and doctors and also is a badly designed bill, may have some force in the 2010 midterms.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Matt Continetti is associate editor at The Weekly Standard. You can read President Obama's interview with NPR at our Web site.

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