Few issues in American politics are as supercharged as health care, and when presidents choose to touch the subject, a surge of high voltage often scorches not only the chief executive, but his party in Congress.
In 1966, after President Johnson had pushed Medicare through Congress the year before, the Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and four in the Senate. In 1994, after first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to overhaul the nation’s health care system, Democrats lost 54 seats in the House and seven in the Senate as Republicans swept in with the “Contract With America.”
President George W. Bush managed to get burned when tackling a similarly gassed-up issue. Mr. Bush - declaring he had political capital from his 2004 re-election that he was going to spend - sought to revamp Social Security, Republicans lost 30 House seats and five in the Senate in 2006.
With President Obama plummeting in the polls as Americans examine his health care reform plan, predictions are starting to roll in that Democrats face what Mr. Bush did after the 2006 elections - called a “thumpin’.”
“A lot of recent polling on individual Senate races has suggested Democrats might be in trouble next year, and these numbers show that to be more broadly true,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, which this month found that just 36 percent of Democrats are happy with the job their party is doing in Congress.
“There’s a lot of discontent out there, and when that’s the case, the party in power pretty inevitably gets the blame,” he said.
Needless to say, Republicans are heartened.
“Things can change over the next year, but it wouldn’t be surprising for House Democrats to lose 40 to 50 seats,” said Tony Fratto, former deputy press secretary for Mr. Bush. “Remember that Democratic leaders actively recruited centrist and even conservative Democrats in 2006 and 2008. Those conservative Democrats will be carrying the weight of what’s proving to be an agenda far out of step with their districts on issues like spending, climate change, taxes and health care reform.”
Some Democrats acknowledge the possibility that the party will lose seats in the midterm elections next year.
“It’s entirely possible that Democrats will have a net loss in 2010, but it is way too early to predict based on where things stand today,” said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson.
“Frankly speaking, a single-digit net loss in House seats would represent a victory for Democrats. We won some seats thanks in part to a highly motivated base and higher turnout that will be impossible to replicate in a midterm,” he said.
Asked if Democrats could lose seats next year, party strategist Mary Anne Marsh said, “Right now, the Democrats could lose 20-plus seats in 2010. And depending upon how the economy and health care reform go, those losses could go up if they fail or down if Democrats succeed in fixing these two problems.”
That Democrats are beginning to talk openly about dropping seats in the midterms is a far cry from 10 months ago, when the party swept into the White House and built huge majorities in Congress, including a filibuster-proof edge in the Senate. Since that day, however, wary independents have been watching every move Mr. Obama makes, and many are beginning to have buyer’s remorse.
It’s not just health care reform that has independents fleeing the president: Questions over the costly health care reform, which some experts say could cost upward of $2 trillion over 10 years, have prompted independents to reconsider other moves by the president, including the $787 billion economic stimulus package.
In a CNN poll released last week, 53 percent of political independents said they disapprove of Mr. Obama’s job performance - the first time he has received a thumbs-down rating from independents.
“Independents in recent polls have left Obama in substantial numbers,” Miss Marsh said. “They are looking for one thing: a fight to get people back to work and the economy back on track. If anything else is discussed that is not related to that mission, then they don’t support it.”
Midterm losses for the party in power are nothing new. By November 2010, Democrats will have held the House and Senate for four years, and voters often begin blaming the majority party for continuing woes.
In 1966, with the Vietnam War escalating and many of the Great Society programs falling well short of their promised effects - including Medicare, which was turning out to be far more costly than Mr. Johnson had said - voters hammered Democrats, killing the party’s veto-proof majority in the Senate and running 47 members out of the House.
The result was even worse the first time Democrats tried to overhaul health care. In 1993, Mrs. Clinton headed a task force that proposed sweeping changes, but Republicans portrayed the effort as an attempt to raise taxes and expand the government bureaucracy. The next year, voters agreed with Republicans, who took over Congress for the first time in 40 years, dealing the incumbent party the biggest loss since 1958.
Although President Clinton had been in the White House just two years, a Wall Street Journal poll conducted days before the 1994 election that found 53 percent of respondents wanted “change in Washington.”
After Mr. Bush in 2004 won the first majority in a presidential election since his father in 1988, he pledged to change Social Security to include private investment accounts. He boldly stated that he had earned political capital and he planned to spend it, but even his own party, which then controlled Congress, balked at the ambitious proposal.
Republicans lost both chambers of Congress in 2006, setting up the 2008 win for Mr. Obama.
Many analysts and Democratic strategists agree that Mr. Obama lost control of the health care debate almost as soon as it started, in part by ceding power to Congress to draft the legislation.
“Any time you put Congress in charge of a major initiative, you are asking for trouble,” said Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon. “It is astonishing that the biggest lesson the new administration seemed to learn from the Clintons was to let Congress lead. There are so many other, more important lessons they should have learned, such as ‘Help the majority with insurance before you help those without.’ ”
Mr. Jackson agreed.
“We should have confidently led with a plan rather than to adopt a position of ‘Let’s talk.’ Without a plan, the president appears adrift, wandering back and forth without a clear sense of direction. Americans react to that by being less confident in the president’s leadership and more likely to believe any silly or hysterical allegation against the plan.
“That leaves us where we are today,” Mr. Jackson said. “People with health insurance aren’t even sure anything needs to be fixed, and they haven’t been persuaded that they have any personal moral or patriotic responsibility to support an effort to provide health care to those without.”