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Why Democrats aren't running on health care

The White House has launched a public relations onslaught to coincide with today's enactment of a handful of popular provisions in the health-care law, but there remains deep skepticism among the party's political class that candidates can -- or will -- run on health care at the ballot box this fall.

On Tuesday, President Obama took to a back yard in Falls Church -- Fix adopted hometown! -- to make the case for the law, casting it as a solution to a long-term problem that government had failed to fix for too long. "Health care was one of those issues that we could no longer ignore," Obama said.

In coordination with Obama's appearance, the White House also rolled out a new section on its Web site dedicated to health care and featuring stories from each of the 50 states about how the law is helping Americans.

And, in private, senior White House advisers have said that targeted Democrats should campaign on health-care reform -- casting it as an example of standing up to the entrenched insurance industry interests.

Yet the evidence on the campaign trail seems to suggest that health care is more burden than boon to targeted Democrats this fall.

To the extent that Democrats are mentioning health care in their campaign ads, it's to highlight their opposition to the law.

In a new campaign ad, South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) touts her vote against the health-care law. "I stood up to my party leadership and voted no, because here in South Dakota we knew we couldn't afford any of it," she says.

"When President Obama and Nancy Pelosi pressured Chet Edwards, Chet stood up to them and voted no against their trillion-dollar health-are bill," says the narrator of an ad for the Texas Democrat.

And, in an ad for Alabama Rep. Bobby Bright, (D) a narrator notes that he voted against the "massive government health-care" program.

What gives? Why are Democrats running away from the bill even as the White House urges an embrace?

Sometimes a picture really is worth 1,000 words -- and this is one of those cases. Here's a look, courtesy of Pollster.com, of public opinion regarding health care.

What's clear from the chart above is that public opinion on health care has been extremely stable for months -- with opposition outrunning support by high single-digit margins.

"Public sentiment about health reform has shifted within a narrow band since the spring," wrote Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation in an op-ed in today's Post. "Confusion and misperception are rampant, with more than a third of seniors still thinking the law contains "death panels (it does not)."

That last line gets at the heart of why Democrats in tough races and districts are largely avoiding talking about health care on the campaign trail -- unless, in the cases of Edwards, Herseth Sandlin and Bright, they use their "no" vote on the legislation to highlight their independence from Washington Democrats.

Public perception for the fall election is locked in as it relates to the bill. People are skeptical of what it will (and won't) do and worried about changing the status quo.

For Democrats up for reelection (or election) in less than six weeks, there is a recognition that there simply isn't enough time to re-litigate what the bill means.

This, again, brings home the differing political timelines that the White House and congressional Democrats are operating under on the issue.

While there's no time left in the election for congressional Democrats to run on health care, there is plenty of time left before November 2012 for President Obama to redefine the issue in the minds of the American people.

And, as Altman writes in his Post op-ed, there are some rays of sun regarding the bill:

"Beneath the political battle lies a success story of early implementation: The federal government that many regard as sluggish and ineffective has turned major elements of the legislation into reality right on schedule."

It is absolutely essential for President Obama to turn the tide of public opinion on health care as he heads into his own reelection since it embodies one of the foundational pillars -- do big things, break old gridlock -- on which he was elected.

"From the big picture perspective, it makes sense for the White House to push health-care reform - it's a signature issue and something was actually accomplished," said Fred Yang, a prominent Democratic pollster. "The reason why you see almost no 'proactive' discussion of health care on the micro level is that Democrats are on the defensive and we need to start defining our Republican opponents on their weaknesses."

By Chris Cillizza  | September 23, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Health Care  
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