Democrats Prove Failures at Health Care Messaging; Deficit Perceptions Could Affect Elections

One aspect of the health care reform fight that was sometimes overlooked, but I think should get more attention in any political retrospective, is just how completely and totally Democrats lost the PR messaging war. Democrats spent a huge amount of time and political capital making sure the bill was scored by the CBO as reducing the deficit. They even got into a serious fight with labor unions over excise taxes. Defending the new taxes depressed support for the bill and almost derailed the legislation because of a fight within the party. Yet, politically, Democrats have basically have nothing on a PR front to show for their efforts. (Via Fox News Poll)
35. Do you think the new health care law is more likely to help keep the country from going further into debt or is it more likely to push the country further into debt?
SCALE: 1. Help keep the country from going further into debt 2. Push the country further into debt 3. (Depends/No effect) 4. (Don’t know) Keep country from Push further (Depends/further debt into debt No effect) (DK)

6-7 Apr 10 22%6576

65% of the country think the bill will push us further into debt, and only 22% of think it will improve the national debt. Even Democrats are evenly divided 40%-40%. The numbers for whether people think the bill reduces or increases the deficit are even worse in a recent CBS News poll.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which is Congress's official scorekeeper, projects that the bill will reduce the deficit (PDF), and has projected this repeatedly about past versions of the bill. Making sure the bill got a good CBO became an overarching obsession with Washington Democrats. All told, they probably wasted well over two months just waiting for CBO scores and making small changes so the bill was found to be deficit reducing.

Democrats risked internal fights over mechanisms to make the bill deficit-reducing and took serious political hits for adding new taxes to the bill. Yet, for all this, they get basically no credit. On a PR messaging front, all that time, effort, and political capital was completely wasted. Despite all the time spent on caring about a good CBO score, vast majorities believe the bill will increase the deficit. This messaging loss on the thing (deficit reducing) that President Obama and Congressional leadership probably cared most about being part of the bill is a dramatic failure that will probably have serious implications in November.

If Democrats had known the American people would believe the bill would end up increasing the deficit regardless of how hard they worked to get a “good” CBO score, Democrats probably could have saved themselves a lot of time and political heartburn. They probably could have quickly produced a more popular, non-deficit-reducing bill by having new tax increases. Ironically, it might be the conservative Democrats who cared so much about a good CBO score and wasted so much time over it that might end up losing their seats in the November because a vast majority of Americans think they voted for a bill that will increase the national debt.

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