Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg: Health reform isn't dead

On the eve of next week's televised healthcare summit, President Obama and Democrats have no choice except to press ahead on reform, said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg Wednesday at a Monitor breakfast.

Michael Bonfigli / Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Democratic strategist and pollster Stan Greenberg speaks at a Monitor Breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, DC, Wednesday.

On the eve of next week’s televised healthcare summit, a bipartisan affair hosted by President Obama, the future of reform hangs in the balance.

Opinion polls weigh against a big, comprehensive reform, and the public looks set to punish the Democratic Party in the fall midterms amid a downward slide in its favorable ratings.

But Mr. Obama and the Democrats have no choice but to press ahead on reform, says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.

“It can’t be dead, it shouldn’t be dead, and I’m presuming won’t be dead,” Mr. Greenberg told a Monitor breakfast Wednesday.

The effort to reform the US healthcare system has long stymied Democrats, including President Clinton, whom Greenberg served. After staking his first year in office on health reform, Obama isn’t giving up. But the challenge he faces, having ceded control of the process to Congress, is to wind up with something he can sell to the public.

“Right now, the healthcare bill is defined by the process,” says Greenberg, referring to special deals in the Senate version for states such as Nebraska and Louisiana. Republicans used these deals to damage the image of the legislation in the public eye.

“The process of producing a new bill has got to show it as an amended bill,” Greenberg says.

He notes that whatever does pass will have special deals, “because this is Washington, this is the way Congress operates.”

But, Greenberg adds, “at least at that point the president can explain the benefits of the bill. There’s no way to explain a bill without a bill.”

Greenberg also sounded a note of relative optimism about the fall midterms. While he expects the Republicans to make significant gains in congressional seats, he does not see the GOP winning control of Congress. But in making major gains, the Republicans could misinterpret that result heading into the 2012 presidential contest.

The 2010 election “is a real danger and a trap for the Republicans,” Greenberg says.

Having scored a victory by gaining seats, the party will believe it has hit on a winning strategy and therefore be less inclined to change. The Democrats went through this in 1982, Greenberg recalls. President Reagan struggled in his first two years in office, and the Democrats gained 26 House seats.

“We didn’t have to change,” he says. The party went on to nominate the liberal Walter Mondale for president in 1984, over the more independent-minded Gary Hart. Former Vice President Mondale lost in a landslide.

It wasn’t until the Democrats nominated the centrist Bill Clinton in 1992 that they found their winning candidate.

Today, even as the Democrats have declined in popularity, the Republicans have not gained – in contrast with 1994, the last time the GOP overthrew a Democratic majority in Congress. So Greenberg does not see the 1994 parallel as forcefully as others.

Greenberg also sees no danger for Obama in a new CNN poll showing 52 percent of the public opposing his reelection in 2012.

“If anything, these numbers say absolutely nothing about him,” Greenberg says. “We’re at the low point of the recession.”


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