As the November elections approach, House Republican leaders are trying to capitalize on public dislike of the new health law - about half of voters oppose it - by vowing to "repeal and replace" it. But that's a risky approach for individual GOP candidates, warns Republican pollster Bill McInturff, a partner of Public Opinion Strategies, a national political and public affairs survey research firm.
The reason: Many people already are enjoying some popular new benefits, which include allowing adult children to remain on parents' policies until the age of 26 and a prohibition on insurers' rescinding coverage when people get sick.
McInturff has been urging Republicans to use a more moderate message: "Keep what's good in the law and replace what's not." He says new polling that he will release Friday shows that this approach works. Here are edited excerpts of an interview with McInturff:
If there's significant opposition to the health reform law, then why would it hurt candidates to promise a full repeal?
If you're for repeal and replace, it means you have to say that every single element of health care is something you disagree with, or at least allows your opponent to characterize your position that way. That seems to me to not make much sense.
Number two, people are very conscious that we fought for a year about this. And so telling people that we're going to start totally from scratch and do it again, there's a certain kind of weariness about the process.
And number three, and importantly, right now we're not really fighting about health care. If you look at most Republican advertising
and most of the issue advocacy advertising that relates to health care, it's being used as a proof point about cost and the role of government, and it's a pretty powerful proof point.
Why are House leaders vowing to repeal and replace the health reform law if, as you say, that's not the best message?
Those are the people who are thinking about post-November. They're thinking about what they would do legislatively and about translating it to how you would try to get that done, and the rest of the folks running for office are trying to get elected. They have different missions.
What impact are ads about the health care law - pro and con -- having on the public?
I'm doing some polling this week to track people's recall in terms of what they think they've seen, and how they would assess what they've seen. Directionally, it looks like a little less than half of the country believes that they've seen an ad about health care, and, to the extent that they have, they've identified what they're watching as being overwhelmingly opposed to the Obama plan.
How does the health care law relate figure in the political battle over the size of government?
When you look at the actual content of most of the commercials, it seems to me that they're not really about health care, they're about, "Look, Obama tried to have too big of a government, there are kind of these band-aids and requirements that people don't like, and it's going to have this negative effect, and, oh my gosh, it costs too much." Or, the drumbeat around $500 billion [that the federal government saves] in Medicare.
How popular are the new health care benefits, and how angry will the public be if faced with giving them up?
You're hitting exactly on why I believe the frame should be [this way]. You don't have to rhetorically concede every single element in the health care bill.
What makes you believe that the message to keep what works and replace the rest is working for Republicans?
We tested in May for NBC News/Wall Street Journal. We tested language where a Democrat said, "That's a good start, and we'll make changes that are needed," versus a Republican who says, "Repeal and start over," and the Democrat had the advantage on that.
Concurrently with that, we were doing some other work. I looked ahead and said, "Look, why would we want to repeal and start
over when in September, what's going to happen is the three or four most popular items of the bill will be coming on line?"
Marilyn Werber Serafini is the Kaiser Family Foundation's Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow based at Kaiser Health News. The fellowship honors the late Robin Toner, The New York Times' long-time health and politics reporter whose work so often framed the public debate on health issues. KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.