Democrats' Challenge: Explaining Health Reform

A faculty friend of mine--a liberal Democrat--raised a question at lunch yesterday about the recently passed health care reform law. "If we are going to be insuring 30 million more people, where will the extra doctors and nurses come from to treat them?" This question from a supporter of reform illustrates a problem facing Democrats from now to November--how to dispel the uncertainly and distrust surrounding the provisions and implementation of this new law.

It's no secret that the law is famously complex. So citizens are understandingly asking "What did the federal government just do to me?" It's hard to answer that question in a reassuring manner in the short run, given the law's complexity and gradual phase-in. Many uncertainties will remain through November. The media will of course spotlight any controversies surrounding the law's content and implementation over the coming months, which will probably stoke public anxiety.

Another problem for Democrats is the widespread public distrust of Congress and the federal government, which has risen to epic levels in recent months. Those vital and volatile political independents in surveys voiced skepticism of the reform effort as Congress debated and passed the law. Polls indicate independents are leaning GOP for this November. It's hard to see what reassuring news about health care can coax many of them back into the Democratic fold in the short run.

Democrats have done themselves much good with their base by passing a landmark reform desired by party activists for many decades. That will buoy Democratic turnout in the fall.

But the base is not prone to distrust the Democratic Congress, nor is it among those most anxious about the law's provisions. The fact that my liberal Democratic friend has some doubts about how health care reform will work out is a straw in the wind. It's a straw consistent with public opinion surveys indicating that Democrats have a mammoth persuasive task between now and Election Day in November.

Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here.

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