Vulnerable Democrats are tiptoeing on health care

April 8, 2010

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — First-term Rep. Betsy Markey is convinced that once people learn what’s in President Barack Obama’s new health care overhaul law, they’ll support it.


But it’s not a message she was eager to carry in person to her constituents in Republican-leaning eastern Colorado. During Congress’ two-week Easter break, she reserved any discussion of health care reform for conference calls, an op-ed piece and an appearance at a small-town Rotary Club — all small-bore outreach.


After the raucous, angry town halls of last summer, Markey steered clear of massive gatherings.


She was not alone. Tough votes for Obama’s health care plan have further complicated the re-election prospects of dozens of already vulnerable freshman and second-term Democrats. There’s even a chance the party could lose control of one or both houses in the midterm elections.


Democrats and a few Republicans reported receiving threats to themselves and their families in the days after the vote. The FBI arrested a California man Wednesday for allegedly making threatening phone calls to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. On Tuesday, a Washington state man was arrested and charged with threatening to kill Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.


In districts and states where the overhaul was most controversial, town-hall meetings have been replaced with tightly controlled business roundtables and other gatherings with voters.


In Nevada, first-term Democratic Rep. Dina Titus defended her vote for the health care bill in a newspaper piece she co-wrote and in a meeting with female doctors. Facing a vigorous GOP challenge from a Republican physician, she acknowledged treading carefully.


“It’s more of a teaching tour than a selling tour,” she said of her recent appearances.


Republicans dismiss the notion that voters opposed to the new law can be sold on it. They equate the overhaul to a “government takeover” of health care and blame it on one-party arrogance. The theme is central to House Republicans’ plan to cast the GOP as the party that will listen to what voters want, not pass bills the people oppose.


As lawmakers prepared to wrap up their recess and return to Washington, Republicans released a campaign spot featuring feet in flip-flops and criticizing House Democrats who voted against the health care overhaul last fall but then voted for it on final passage.


Like Markey and Titus, second-term Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., voted for the health care overhaul but hasn’t made an in-person appearance before a large crowd on the topic since it was signed into law. His opponent questioned the tactic.


“They’re just hunkering down and hoping it blows over, that people will move on to a new subject. But I don’t know if it’s working,” said Republican David Schweikert of Scottsdale, Ariz., who unsuccessfully ran against Mitchell in 2008 and seeks a rematch.


Political analysts say it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who may determine whether the soft sell on health care works. After a long and tortured debate, the nation may be ready to move on to other problems. Republicans hoping to turn tea party anger into success in the fall need to keep stoking the fire of discontent, analysts say.


“The question is not how conservative Democrats can explain health care, but whether their Republican opponents can exploit unpopular health care votes,” said Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Some moderate Democrats who voted for the new law feel obliged to defend it, even sell it to skeptics.


Rep. Mark Schauer, a freshman Democrat representing southern Michigan, said there’s been some loud opposition at his meetings with voters, dairy farmers and small business owners. But most people, he said, just want to learn more about the program.


“I think it’s my obligation to inform my constituents about what’s going on,” Schauer said.
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