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Will Post-Health-Care-Fatigue Syndrome Thwart GOP Plans?

5 years ago
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On Tuesday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was meeting with 13 columnists and talking about the historic health care reform vote she had won less than 48 hours earlier. As she spoke, an aide handed her a folded piece of paper. She paused to read the note then informed us that a new Gallup poll was reporting that 49 percent of American adults considered passage of the bill a "good thing," while 40 percent said it was a "bad thing." Pelosi then noted that 50 percent were "exhausted" by the bill -- and with a laugh, she corrected herself. The poll had said that half of Americans were "enthusiastic or pleased" about the bill's passage, with 42 percent "angry or disappointed." Pelosi noted that with this slip she had been projecting.

But Pelosi had a point. It may sound silly to people who live outside of Washington, but the capital city is indeed exhausted by the epic debate that climaxed with the House vote. (And there's a coda to come: The Senate Democrats still have to pass the reconciliation measure that contains tweaks of the main piece of health care legislation.) There is a palpable sense in Washington that this battle over health care reform has nearly broken the town. Legislators and their staff aides, the president and his people, reporters and pundits, political strategists and advocates -- they've all been consumed by this fight for nearly a year and they're experiencing Post-Health-Care-Fatigue Syndrome (PHCFS). After all, this long-running drama followed months of political and policy intensity: the economic collapse, the subsequent bailouts, the start of the Obama administration. Moreover, that stretch came after a titanic and tiring presidential campaign, with competitive primaries and multiple candidates on each side, that lasted for almost two years. Obama and his crew have basically been going non-stop for three years, and on some days at the White House, it really does show.

By now, some of you might be saying, "Are these guys and gals wimps?" True, politicking and governing are not physical labors. But with assorted crises and a 24/7 hyper news cycle full of ever-changing ups and downs --The bill is dead! The bill is not dead! -- it's been a wearying slog for the politerati. The health care debate has not only sucked up so much of the oxygen and crowded out other legislative work; it has absorbed hours needed for sleep.

PHCFS does have political side effects. Pelosi indicated she has little interest in pursuing separate legislation proposed by liberal House Democrats to set up a public option -- a government-run health insurance plan that would compete with private plans offered through the new health exchanges that will be set up by the reform bill. And because 2010 is an election year, the usual reluctance to take on any heavy lifts too close to November is compounded this year by the tiredness. Thus, it may be even harder for Congress to move ahead with immigration reform or climate change legislation, other big items on Obama's to-do list. The Senate has just begun grappling with Wall Street reform legislation, a version of which the House passed last fall. The Senate Banking Committee approved the measure along party lines on Monday, and the real fight between D's and R's over this bill will take place on the Senate floor. But if a bill is passed, the House and Senate will have to iron out the differences. Even though there's seven months to go to the election, there may not be enough time to work all this out.

Perhaps more important, Post-Health-Care-Fatigue Syndrome could interfere with the GOP's master plan for storming back into the congressional majority. Before the final votes were cast on the health care legislation Sunday night, Republican leaders and strategists were declaring that their 2010 campaign would focus on a simple notion: Repeal! GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sen. Jim DeMint have introduced legislation to overturn the bill that Obama signed into law Tuesday. But within Republican circles, there have been some second thoughts, with prominent GOPers saying that the best approach would be crusading for a partial repeal. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls it a "repeal and replace" strategy.

It seems that the GOPers will be forced to hold a debate within their own ranks over exactly what sort of repeal campaign to adopt -- and that could get messy. (Do those Tea Party activists desire an extensive discussion over what to keep and what to reject regarding the hundreds of provisions in the bill, or do they simply yearn to smother the measure, knife it, shoot it, and then burn it?) And Democrats seem eager to take on any Republican repeal effort -- and depict Republicans pushing for repeal as in favor of removing the new restrictions on abusive insurance company practices. In her meeting with columnists, Pelosi referred to an 8-year-old boy who had a stroke and was kicked off his family's insurance plan. After the health care bill is enacted, she noted, "he will never have that worry again." Democrats are just waiting to accuse Republicans of pulling the plug on such Americans. (For more of what Pelosi told the columnists, see Jill Lawrence's account.)

But the bigger challenge for Republicans pushing repeal may be PHCFS within the American public. There's no way of telling yet, but my hunch is that a lot of Americans are also exhausted by the reform tussle and may want to move on. Keeping this fight alive could serve the Republicans well among their Tea Party base, but it might turn off independent voters and others who wonder if the GOP has become a party of sore losers, who prefer re-fighting a lost battle to focusing on revving up the economy. The Republican Party is well-positioned to take advantage this fall of what will likely be months of high unemployment. Doing nothing and functioning as little more non-incumbents might serve GOP candidates well. Yet if GOPers come across as crusaders who want to revive the already-settled health care debate, voters may say, who wants to go through that again? After all, the best remedy for PHCFS is rest and resetting the agenda.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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