Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The White House's phony case for its health plan

By Byron York
Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner
March 16, 2010

The latest White House line is that polls showing the public opposed to Obamacare are wrong. In fact, administration officials argue, most Americans support the Democrats' national health care plan, a point proven by poll data showing people approve of several elements of the current health bill.

"The central components of the plan ... are all supported by solid majorities," writes Joel Benenson, the president's chief pollster, in a Washington Post op-ed attacking the "Republican myth" of opposition to health care reform. As proof, Benenson points to a Post poll, published in early February, that reveals support for some parts of the plan even as it shows a narrow overall opposition to the Democratic bill, 49 percent to 46 percent.

The Post poll cited by Benenson has become the message of the moment for health care proponents; not long before Benenson's article appeared, I received talking points from a Democratic strategist arguing that the Post poll "debunked the GOP myth that the American people are opposed to health reform."

Indeed, the idea that the public supports the major elements of Obamacare is the foundation of the White House's political pushback. But what is really going on?

The Post poll asked the following question: "Do you think the government should or should not a) require businesses to offer private health insurance for their full-time employees; b) require all Americans to have health insurance, either from their employer or from another source, with tax credits or other aid to help low-income people pay for it; and c) require insurance companies to sell coverage to people regardless of pre-existing conditions."

The paper's pollsters found that people liked them all. Seventy-two percent supported requiring businesses to provide insurance; 56 percent supported requiring Americans to have coverage, with subsidies; and 80 percent supported banning pre-existing conditions requirements.

But there are lots of other parts of the 2,000-plus page Democratic plan, and they are just as important to the overall scheme. What if media pollsters asked about them? For example, what if a poll asked this question: "Do you think the government should or should not a) require every American to purchase health insurance and impose penalties on those who do not comply; b) cut one-half trillion dollars in Medicare spending and use the savings to subsidize mandatory health insurance for lower- and middle-income Americans; and c) order the Internal Revenue Service to share your personal tax information with the Health Choices Administration to determine whether you are in compliance with health insurance requirements and qualify for coverage subsidies."

Those are elements of the bill, too. Do you think they would poll well?

As a matter of fact, they don't. While pollsters haven't asked those specific questions, they have asked similar ones, and the answers look terrible for the White House. For example, in January, the Kaiser Foundation asked whether respondents would support a bill that would "require nearly all Americans to have a minimum level of health insurance or else pay a fine." Sixty-two percent of those polled said such a requirement would make them less likely to support the bill.

In February, Newsweek asked a similar question and got a similar result. Newsweek also asked about the tax on so-called "Cadillac" health plans, and found 55 percent opposition.

Those elements -- mandate, penalties, tax -- are absolutely critical to the Democrats' health care scheme. Without them, supporters concede, it would not work. Yet if you conducted a poll focusing on those elements, the resulting story might begin, "A new survey finds that the president's health care proposal is not only unpopular overall, but that individual elements of the plan are even more disliked by a skeptical public."

But the Post poll didn't do that. "The way some of the polls have worked is that they cherry-pick the positive items and leave the negative items out, which creates what I would call a false positive," says David Winston a Republican pollster. "So while there may be many positive elements to a policy package, voters evaluate the entire package, and in this case there are elements in the overall package that cause voters to not support it, even though there are things in it they like."

And that is the bottom line. No matter what the White House says, the public has taken a look at the health care proposal as a whole. They don't like it. It's as simple as that.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com

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