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).