Will Democrats Have Buyer's Remorse Over Health Care?

The new health care law, a massive policy change passed on a narrow party-line vote, makes the public reception of this policy vital to the Democrats' fate in 2010 and perhaps even 2012. In the past, major expansions of the welfare state--from Social Security through Medicare--passed with bipartisan support. Now, Democrats bear sole responsibility for the course of health care under the new policy, and for them that entails considerable risk.

The concept of "issue ownership," originated by political scientist John Petrocik of the University of Missouri, helps us understand the stakes for Democrats. The public has long given "ownership" of certain issues to each of the major parties because the activists and officeholders in the parties consistently put certain policy items at the top of their agendas.

In Petrocik's 1996 article, "Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections with a 1980 Case Study," published in the American Journal of Political Science (Vol. 40, No. 3), he explains that established patterns of "issue ownership" derive from long-standing relationships between a political party and the groups that support it: "groups support a party because it promises to alter or protect a social or economic status quo which harms or benefits them; the party promotes such policies because it draws supporters, activists and candidates from the groups" (p. 828).

How do voters relate to issue ownership? Each national election year features a list of salient issues.  If a party "owns" an approach to those issues the public endorses, electoral gains result. If not, big losses can ensue. As Petrocik puts it: "once the agenda of an election is settled, reinforced partisans, defectors and swing voters tilt the outcome in favor of the candidate advantaged by the agenda. A concern with social welfare problems reinforces Democratic identifiers, provokes defections among Republicans, and a Democratic tide among independents. A GOP agenda of taxation, government spending and crime has a mirror imaging effect" (p. 830).

For many years, polls have revealed Democrats to be the preferred party on health care, a signal social welfare issue; they have "owned" it and now they "own" the new policy. The question for 2010, and perhaps 2012, is, now that they have created a new policy via a party-line vote, how will the public respond? Issue ownership of health care will benefit Democrats if the public focuses on the social welfare benefits that may come from the legislation. It will damage Democrats if the new policy is widely viewed as producing too much government and higher taxes.

In the next few months the agenda for the 2010 elections will "become settled." So far, polls show that popular majorities think the bill will produce too much government, higher taxes and lower quality health care.

If those concerns persist, to paraphrase Petrocik, the 2010 election agenda will reinforce GOP identifiers, provoke defections among Democrats, and lead to a Republican tide among independents.  If so, the Democratic health care plan will have ceded agenda dominance to the issues traditionally "owned" by Republicans. That translates into an electoral wipeout, and ownership of health care may well produce buyer's remorse among Democrats by November.