Sure, the 2010 election isn’t over, yet. But it’s still not too soon to start talking about 2012.
I know there’s an immense urge to compare President Barack Obama’s 2010-2012 situation to President Bill Clinton’s 1994-1996 situation: both are Democrats who faced resurgent congressional Republicans in their first midterm. Clinton was reelected in 1996 despite Republican gains in 1994, and many people are thinking (even hoping) that the same will happen to Obama in 2012, despite Republican gains in 2010.
Plenty of people have already talked about how Clinton changed tack after the 1994 midterm, and speculated about how Obama will or won’t do the same after the 2010 midterm.
I won’t add to that speculation, but I will say this: Even without knowing how Obama responds to large Republican gains in Congress, there’s a big difference between Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 1996.
And the difference is all about health care reform.
Clinton pushed for health care reform after he was inaugurated in 1993, but the effort failed. Legislation — dubbed “HillaryCare” by many (after Hillary Clinton, one of the legislation’s main architects) — was proposed, but was not passed.
Likewise, Obama also pushed for health care reform after his inauguration in 2009. His legislation, however — dubbed “ObamaCare” by some, but officially called the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” — was passed. And that’s going to make all the difference.
In the run-up to the 1996 election, HillaryCare was discussed, but it wasn’t much of a campaign issue. It hadn’t passed, so there was little in terms of substance that Clinton urgently needed to defend.
But ObamaCare has claimed actual territory in the health care reform debate. While Clinton critics could rail against HillaryCare and what it would have done, Obama critics can rail against ObamaCare and what it is doing, and how it compares to what Obama promised.
And, already, those promises appear to be unraveling. Two promises are notable:
First, Obama promised that his health care reform plan would reduce the deficit. Specifically, the deficit would be slashed by $143 billion over the first 10 years. Now, $14.3 billion in deficit reduction per year is not much — it’s even less than the annual cost of earmarks, which Obama said was paltry compared to other costs. But we’re not even going to get that much, because, in May, the Congressional Budget Office revised the cost of ObamaCare upward by $115 billion. Now we’re only going to get $28 billion in deficit reduction over the first decade, which is not even $3 billion a year. That small amount is technically consistent with his promise of deficit reduction, but only if there aren’t any more nasty upward revisions between now and election day 2012. If ObamaCare’s costs go up by another 3% or more — and it will — it’ll be adding to the deficit.
Second, Obama repeatedly told Americans that, if they like their health care plan and their doctor, they can keep it (or him, or her, or them). But this is also falling apart, and his administration is handing out waivers exempting organizations from having to follow ObamaCare’s regulations. Why? Because the regulations were prompting employers to drop health care coverage for their employees. Look for more of this to happen, as more employers finally untangle ObamaCare’s various rules and regulations and figure out what their implications are (something ObamaCare supporters didn’t take the time to do before passing it).
Simply put, Obama has to keep fighting the health care reform battle all over again in the 2012 presidential campaign in a way that Clinton didn’t in 1996. As time goes on, more details of the health care plan will be known and compared to Obama’s promises. This is detail that Clinton never faced and never had to argue over. You could look at Clinton’s health care promises, but you couldn’t hold any enacted legislation (and its consequences) up to Clinton’s promises for comparison. But with Obama we can do exactly that.
Add to that the ongoing legal challenges to ObamaCare, which — regardless of how the courts decide on them — will keep the issue alive in the media and the minds of voters.
Many Democrats have said that 1994 went badly for Democrats — they lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats (plus two defections) — because they proposed health care reform but didn’t pass it. As a result, the reasoning goes, they got hit with criticism for their ideas but got no credit for actual legislation and its benefits.
That’s why some Democrats were so insistent on passing health care reform this time around in 2010. Instead of pointing to potential benefits that HillaryCare would have had in 1996, now Democrats can point to actual benefits that ObamaCare will provide or is providing in 2010.
But I believe that their legislative victory will have the opposite effect. It will make things worse. Their losses in 2010 will be even worse than in 1994, and — unlike 1996 — they won’t get an incumbent Democratic president reelected in 2012.