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Michael Gerson: Midterm elections and the GOP's need for creative policy

Published: Sunday, March 23 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Of all the signs of Democratic midterm trouble, it is fitting that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius — who has already contributed so much — should make another important offering. She recently assured the House Ways and Means Committee that health insurance premium increases this coming year would be "far less significant than what they were prior to the Affordable Care Act."

Over the past several years, increases in insurance premiums have averaged nearly 6 percent. Because of the rocky launch, age distribution and delayed provisions of Obamacare exchanges, insurance company officials expect far larger premium increases in the spring — in the double digits, if not the triple digits, in many places.

This is an administration that learns nothing. Rather than preparing people for increased premiums, and trying to explain the additional benefits of the new system, it says, in effect: If you like your current health insurance premium, you can keep your current health insurance premium. What must Democratic candidates around the country think of another round of Obamacare overpromising? In Iowa, for example, rates on the exchange are expected to rise by 100 percent — which will be defended by a Democratic Senate candidate polling under 50 percent.

When it comes to bad electoral news for Democrats, just throw this on the pile. Midterm elections — in which the electorate tends to be older and whiter — are an inherently easier environment for Republicans. The distribution of vulnerable Democratic Senate seats in Republican-leaning states further tilts the playing field. President Obama's low approval predicts serious Democratic reverses. The recent special election in Florida demonstrated that a strong, well-funded Democratic candidate who had never voted for Obamacare could be defeated by a weak Republican candidate who had no issue except Obamacare.

Some Republicans are anticipating a "tsunami" — with the hubris of weather reporting at a distance of seven months. But Republicans really only need a stiff wind to gain a Senate majority.

How that victory is secured, however, will determine its meaning.

One option is for congressional Republicans to lay low, avoid mistakes and trust in time and the political tides. Pushing a serious governing agenda might divide the caucus and distract attention from President Obama's failings.

While doing nothing is a finely honed congressional skill, it presents problems in this case. A contentless victory, paradoxically, would encourage ideological over-interpretation. Many conservatives would envision the end of Obamacare, the death throes of liberalism and a galloping constitutionalist mandate — forgetting the temporary midterm demographic advantage, the temporarily favorable map and the temporary conditions of a president's sixth year. Activist groups would have leave to demand impossible outcomes and blame Republican leaders for weakness. Republicans, once again, might be defined by maximal expectations that are off-putting to many Americans.

This approach would also do nothing to solve the long-term problems of a party that has lost four out of the last six presidential elections while progressively alienating young, women and minority voters. And no answer to the 47 percent question: Do Republicans care about struggling and working-class voters?

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