Manchin Flails as Democrats Search for a Message on Health Care

Gov. Joe Manchin poses at a West Virginia University football game on Sept. 18 Michael Switzer / AP

Last week, I wrote about the struggles of Gov. Joe Manchin, the Democratic nominee for Senate in a West Virginia special election to replace Robert Byrd, saying that Manchin was still on course to win—as long as he didn't let up.

So what's his latest move? He's joined with the likes of Republican Whip Eric Cantor and Iowa Rep. Steve King in calling for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. RealClearPolitics reports:

"I believe in health-care reform. I don't believe in the way this bill was passed," Manchin said Sunday afternoon. "Why they overreached, I don't know."

Pressed on his support for repeal, Manchin clarified that he favored "repealing the things that are bad in that bill." He ticked off a list of reforms in the law that he supports and asserted there is broad agreement in both parties for many of them. "Can't you keep that as a good base?" he said, adding, "It's a great bill." He emphasized that he's not calling for wholesale repeal and just wants to roll back parts of it but said, "You do need to."

As you can tell, there's some vagueness in this answer. Manchin doesn't specifically say what parts he opposes. I've called his campaign, and I'll update this post when and if I hear back from them.

Maybe he's got substantive policy quarrels, but with an answer that ambiguous it sounds like he's at the very least trying to distance himself from the political process of passing what's generally believed to be political kryptonite. His opponent, Republican John Raese, has tried to link Manchin to "Obamacare." Meanwhile, Raese has been inching up in the polls, and the latest Rasmussen poll shows him leading Manchin (caveats: it's within the margin of error, and Rasmussen tends to skew a little right). The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is apparently getting nervous; it's just launched a new attack ad against Raese.

Manchin's just the latest Democrat to run against health-care reform. Listening to the buzz, you can see why. Sheryl Stolberg and Michael Shear wrote in The New York Times last week, "Six months after Mr. Obama signed the legislation, its political benefits to the Democratic Party are hard to find." Meanwhile, Jeffrey Anderson of The Weekly Standard was crowing over a poll from Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster, who found that independent likely voters are more concerned about health reform than anything else, and very unlikely to forgive politicians who disagreed with them.

So in that context, an Associated Press poll released Monday had surprising news. According to its findings, these Democrats might be tacking the wrong way in their frantic efforts to stay afloat: "A new AP poll finds that Americans who think the law should have done more outnumber those who think the government should stay out of health care by 2 to 1." That's right: some 40 percent of respondents complained that the Affordable Care Act simply didn't reform the American health system nearly far enough (the margin of error is 3.9 percent).

That harks back to polls taken before the polarizing knock-down, drag-out fight in Congress over the legislation, when respondents felt the system was broken (curiously, as the fight geared up, more and more people said they were pleased with the system). Liberal journalists leapt to praise the poll and to call on Democrats to stand up for themselves.

Now, one poll never tells the whole story, one way or the other. Schoen, for example, is a Democrat, but he's been banging the drum vociferously for some Clintonian triangulation, infuriating liberals. And his poll was conducted for Independent Women's Voice, a group that supports ACA repeal. But Schoen also surveys likely voters, which means it should give a more precise read on people who will actually turn out in November (the margin of error is 3 percent).

Let's throw another poll into the mix. Via Andrew Sullivan, it's a Kaiser Family Foundation poll; KFF is one of the closest trackers of opinion on health. With a similar-size survey pool, Kaiser finds a rosier picture for health-reform advocates. For example, it finds a 49 percent favorable rating for the ACA, with 40 percent against (it's only 46-45 for among likely voters). What's interesting here is that a slim majority of respondents are just plain confused.

And this is why it's a bit of a head-scratcher that Democrats are running so fast away from ACA. As Jonathan Cohn says, "The actual substance of health-care reform has always been popular. To varying degrees, Americans want to regulate insurers, to strengthen consumer protections, and to expand coverage." And as The Economist's M.S. writes, it's a huge Democratic messaging fail.

The Kaiser poll shows that respondents think Democrats have done more to make sure people without insurance get it, more to make health care affordable, more to lower total U.S. spending on health, and more to lower the federal deficit (the last only by two points). Independents who lean neither left nor right have more faith in Democrats than the GOP to do well on health care in the future—by a full 10 percent. Of course, the plurality in that group, 41 percent, doesn't trust either side.

(For the record,'s average for health reform shows 49.6 percent oppose the ACA, while 39.9 percent favor it, although the lines are volatile. The average does not yet include the polls I cite here.)

Come November, it will be impossible to extricate from other issues, especially the economy, the effect of Manchin and other Democrats' stances on health reform on their success. These polls suggest there could be a chance for Dems to push back and run on health reform. But it's easier to listen to conventional wisdom than it is to listen to voters.

UPDATE, 5 p.m.: Taegan Goddard catches an interesting poll result that speaks to voters' confusion:

A new CNN/Opinion Research survey notes that Americans are evenly divided over whether to repeal or keep the health care reform law, with 47% supporting repeal and 49% against.

But the poll also notes that more than half of Americans -- 56% -- think the law will help themselves or families across the country.