Pushing a big government health reform plan the public doesn't want can be hazardous to a political party's health. That's the lesson Democrats should have learned from the 1993-94 health reform debate and the 1994 elections.
Instead, Democrats mistakenly believe they were tossed out of power in the 1994 elections because they failed to pass sweeping reform legislation. Former President Clinton told Senate Democrats just that on Tuesday, warning that failure to pass a health reform bill this year would be the worst political outcome for them.
But polling data from 1994 shows that voters punished elected officials at the polls for supporting the Clinton health reform plan, not for failing to pass it. Opposition to the Clinton legislation grew as voters realized they would pay more for poorer quality health care in a system controlled by government. As a result, failure to pass the plan was greeted by voters with relief, not disappointment.
In fact, exit polls after the 1994 elections found that 58 percent of voters said that Congress' decision to put off health care reform was "good because more time is needed for discussion." Only 31 percent said the delay was "bad because the country needs reform now."
The numbers are similar today, with 61 percent saying they want President Obama and congressional Democrats to keep trying until they are able to make a deal with the Republicans on a health care bill — even if it means the debate continues into next year, according to a Nov. 11 AP-GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media poll. Only 31 percent want Democrats to go ahead and pass a health reform bill this year without bipartisan support.
Concerns about costs were key 16 years ago, too, just as they are today. Back in October 1993, 55 percent believed they would pay more for health care under the Clinton plan, while just 9 percent thought they'd pay less, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. Today, 47 percent think reform will push their costs up, and just 13 percent believe their costs will go down, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last month found.
The public's worries about quality show striking similarities as well. In 1993, 32 percent thought quality would suffer under the Clinton plan; 16 percent said it would get better. Today, 40 percent think the Obama plan will hurt quality, with only 21 percent saying it will improve quality.
Democrats in 1994 also paid a price for pushing a liberal agenda involving issues beyond health reform, including gays in the military, a large income tax hike and the assault weapons ban in the 1994 crime bill. But it was their determined effort to push a health care overhaul plan with big government involvement that crystallized the belief in voters' minds that Washington was trying to do too much.
Today the Democratic Party is in a position remarkably similar to where it was 16 years ago. It has solid majorities in both houses of Congress who are working with a newly inaugurated Democratic president to aggressively push a comprehensive health reform plan the public doesn't like.
Rank-and-file Democrats face a big decision: Will they listen to public opposition and understand the true story of the 1993-94 health care debate? Or will they follow their leaders who are trying to rewrite history in order to pass a health reform plan that the public believes will cost more and deliver poorer quality health care?
Unless Democrats learn the right lessons from history, they may repeat the 1994 elections, where they are swept from power by an electorate angry that their leaders weren't listening to their concerns about a very unpopular health reform plan.
Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a nonprofit research organization specializing in health policy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Sphere.com, November 13, 2009.