GOP pins comeback on anger at 'big government' healthcare

New poll shows lowest support yet among public for Obama's and Democrats' healthcare plan. Republicans see backlash to huge overall increase in federal spending.

Mike Theiler/REUTERS
Thousands of demonstrators gather on the plaza near the US Capitol on September 12 to participate in a "Taxpayer March on DC", protest against President Obama's fiscal and economic policies.

For Republicans, the way out of the wilderness in the 2010 midterm elections looks to be paved with healthcare votes.

More than bank bailouts, stimulus spending, or illegal immigration – other hot-button issues for voters in middle America – the overhaul of the US healthcare system would affect every family. Increasingly, voters expect that the impact to be negative.

Just 41 percent of voters now favor the healthcare reform proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats, according to a Rasmussen Reports national poll, released Monday. That’s the lowest level of support yet measured – down two percentage points from a week ago.

But heathcare reform on top of unpopular bank bailouts and stimulus spending also raises the specter of big government and massive deficits – a key concern for many centrists and moderates.

“It opens a real door for Republican resurgence in 2010, primarily because the views of independents are far closer to Republicans than Democrats on fiscal issues,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

“Independents distrust both Republicans and Democrats, but they are particularly concerned about spending money you don’t have. The longer these enormously expensive proposals go forward in Congress, the more independents will be pushed away from Democrats and toward Republicans,” he adds.

It’s a path the GOP has tried before. Insurgent Republicans took back the House of Representatives in 1994 by campaigning against big government and a 1993 Clinton
healthcare plan they said could have bankrupted the nation. GOP activists say the bank bailouts, stimulus plans, and trillion-dollar deficits in the Obama era make the case for change even stronger.

“This is bigger than '93. What I believe I see is a larger population of citizenry and voters in the center of American politics that are very angry and upset about this,” says former House GOP leader Richard Armey, who now chairs FreedomWorks, a conservative grass-roots group that is mobilizing protests over taxes and big government.

“If Republicans want to prosper at the polls in the next election, they need to tell this great big huge center in the middle of the country: 'We get it. We’re with you. We’re not them,’ ” he adds.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shot back Monday that Republicans are “spreading myths” about Democratic proposals. “Far from a ‘government takeover of healthcare,’ America’s Affordable Health Choices Act builds on the current private, employer-provided healthcare system we have now – and expands enrollment in private insurance,” she said in a statement.

The congressional debate over healthcare reform – and options for paying to expand coverage – is producing the starkest partisan differences in years.

“If you take just about every single healthcare proposal in Congress, there’s a huge division between Republicans and Democrats,” says pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

In a Franklin and Marshall poll to be released this week, 81 percent of Democrats favor offering the public a choice of a government health insurance plan, compared with 42 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents. Support for requiring businesses to provide insurance coverage or pay into a government fund ranges from 81 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents to 41 percent of Republicans. Asked whether individuals should be required to have health insurance, 71 percent of Democrats say yes, compared with 35 percent of independents and 31 percent of Republicans.

“Big government is an issue that Republicans feel they can put at the forefront in 2010,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. “Unlike many social and cultural issues, it can resonate with moderate voters – with the damage to Democrats being that much greater.”

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