Jeffrey H. Anderson is a writer for The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.
Have you ever watched a football game in which a team runs the ball seemingly at will and wins in a rout? And then, in a rematch, that same team for no good reason throws the ball repeatedly, with little success? Meet Team Republican. In 2010, it ran Obamacare down the Democrats' throats. The GOP won, 63-0. Now, in the rematch, the Republicans have changed strategy. Confident in their ability to throw easy touchdown passes on the economy, they've eschewed the running game. But so far the GOP has barely been able to complete a pass. The Democrats, who really have no idea how to stop the run, must feel like the luckiest team around.
What gives? Is it possible Republicans have forgotten how they won a historic 63 House seats (and six Senate seats) just two years ago?
As exit polling clearly showed at the time, it wasn't because of the economy. Rather, on the heels of a highly unpopular crusade by President Obama and congressional Democrats to impose a massive health care overhaul, Republicans won because of voters' concerns over the federal government's size, scope, reach, and insatiable appetite for money and power. They won because they were united against Obamacare and everything it represents.
To be sure, voters were dissatisfied with the economy. But when asked in exit polling who they blamed for the economy's poor performance, only 24 percent said President Obama — compared with 64 percent who blamed either President Bush (29 percent) or Wall Street (35 percent). And while most voters (68 percent) said they didn't think Obama's debt-financed "stimulus" had "helped" the economy, most (66 percent) didn't think it had "hurt" the economy, either.
In the face of such polling, it's awfully hard to argue that voters' dissatisfaction with Obama's economic stewardship propelled the GOP to its biggest electoral gains in the House since two years before Ronald Reagan played George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American. Something else was afoot — something big.
Exit polling reveals ample evidence as to what that something was. The pollsters didn't give voters the option of "repealing Obamacare" as a response to the question, "Which should be the highest priority for the next Congress?" Still, among the answers offered, "reducing the budget deficit" outpolled any of the others — including "spending to create jobs." Moreover, after half of a presidential term that was focused on Obamacare, voters responded by a margin of roughly three to one (74 to 24 percent) that they felt "dissatisfied" or "angry," rather than "satisfied" or "enthusiastic," about "the way the federal government is working." And by a tally of 56 to 38 percent, voters said the government "is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals," rather than not doing enough "to solve problems."
The singular importance of Obamacare to Republicans' 2010 success can be gleaned from other sources as well. A study conducted by scholars at Dartmouth and elsewhere found that supporters of Obamacare "paid a significant price" in the election. The authors looked at cap and trade, the economic "stimulus," and Obamacare, and concluded that the latter had by far the most adverse effect on Democratic fortunes. Indeed, if "all Democrats in competitive districts [had] opposed health care reform," about 25 seats would probably have swung from the Republican column into the Democratic column. If not for Obamacare, we'd likely still be referring to Speaker Pelosi.
Nor has Obamacare become remotely popular in the interim. Since the 2010 election, Rasmussen Reports has conducted 77 repeal polls. In all 77, likely voters have supported repeal — by as much as 29 points and never fewer than 5 points. Independents have generally shown about the same amount of support for repeal as the citizenry as a whole. Real Clear Politics lists 19 other repeal polls taken over that span. In all but one, respondents have favored repeal. So, since the last election, repeal's overall win-loss record in the polls is 95-1. Why, exactly, aren't Republicans running on this?
Moreover, thanks to the Supreme Court, the most despised part of Obamacare remains in place: its individual mandate. While state governments often require residents to buy insurance — car insurance, for example — Obamacare's individual mandate would mark the first time in our more-than-200-year history that private American citizens would be compelled to buy a product or service of the federal government's choosing, merely as a condition of living in the United States. Mitt Romney shouldn't let his support for an individual mandate in the Bay State scare him from making this point — repeatedly.
There is one more reason why emphasizing Obamacare is so crucial. The academic study cited above concluded that Democrats' support for Obamacare had led voters "to perceive them as more liberal," "more ideologically distant," and more "out of step." This was particularly true, they said, for independent voters. In other words, voters — especially independent voters — don't just oppose Obamacare as a matter of policy; they view it as the very symbol of big-government liberalism, and therefore (rightly) identify those who champion it as big-government liberals.
When people wonder why, despite round after round of bad job reports, Mitt Romney can't seem to break through in the polls, perhaps this finding provides a large part of the answer. By refusing to make Obama's centerpiece legislation a centerpiece of this campaign, Romney is not just giving up on the most potent Republican argument; he's also allowing Obama, arguably the most liberal president in history, to slide toward the political center in voters' minds. Every day of the campaign that passes without an Obamacare argument is a day in which Obama appears more acceptable to independents, the very group of voters the GOP nominee is unabashedly targeting.
To phrase this a bit differently, if you remove Obamacare from the equation, the Obama presidency isn't clearly objectionable to most independents. Without Obamacare, you're left with Obama's having been bad on the economy . . . but so was President Bush. You're left with Obama's having been bad on the debt . . . but so was Bush. It's hard for voters to know how to apportion the blame. Moreover, they like Obama personally — and they like the idea of him. Plus, to return to the football analogy, members of the press corps, instead of playing the role of impartial referees, have signed on as cheerleaders for Team Obama.
But here's the key: Obama owns Obamacare. He can't tie it to Bush. He can't convincingly tie it to Romney — although he'll surely continue to try. And when trying to tie Obamacare to Romney, Obama suffers from a few disadvantages: Romney didn't spearhead Obamacare's passage; Romney didn't sign Obamacare into law; and Obamacare isn't named after Romney.
We may be getting late into the third quarter, but there's still plenty of game left to play. By finally emphasizing his opposition to Obamacare, Romney would slowly but surely move Obama to the left — where he belongs — in voters' minds. What's more, unlike on the economy, the debt, or foreign policy, the choice on Obamacare is binary and more obviously decisive for voters. If they reelect Obama, they'll get a 2,700-page government overhaul that will raise health costs and deficits, lower the quality of care, and compromise Americans' liberty. If they elect Romney, they'll get repeal and real reform.
That's not the choice Obama wants Americans to be thinking about when they walk into the voting booth on November 6th.