Major Issues, Poison Pills

The widely reported death of the spirit of compromise has become a centerpiece of conventional wisdom about politics in the Obama era, highlighted by the stubborn rejection of good-faith bargaining on the implementation of Obamacare and the failure of a comprehensive immigration reform bill in Congress. Each side blames the other. The news media pumps out story after story about a mood of paralysis and toxicity that has frozen Congress, stymied the White House, and even led people to wonder if the system set up by the Constitution is broken.

Public opinion tells a subtler tale. Polling suggest that the politics of health care and immigration are less dependent on mood or a shared state of mind than on conscious choices by political actors, especially elected Republicans, to use rhetoric that emphasizes the deal killers on those issues. They emphasize the least popular elements of complex, multi-part programs and proposals in order to prevent the implementation of other elements that in many cases enjoy widespread, even bipartisan support from the public. “Comprehensive immigration reform” and “pathway to citizenship” become equated with “amnesty,” obscuring other elements largely embraced by the public. This is not a story of spirit or mood — it’s one of strategy and choice.

If all else were equal, University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling data suggest that on balance, Texas Republicans would be mildly supportive of many of the elements that fall under the label “Obamacare,” and overwhelmingly supportive of much of the comprehensive immigration reform package being discussed at the national level.

But all things aren’t equal. In addition to the heavy influence of partisanship in shaping voters’ opinions, both policy packages have individual provisions that are poison pills to a large portion of the GOP primary electorate. That hobbles both packages in most Texas Republican circles. These specific provisions also provide political catnip to Republicans running for office, especially during primary season.

The design of two batteries of questions on health care and immigration in the October 2013 UT/TT Poll help shed light on these dynamics. In that poll, half our respondents were asked whether they supported comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. The other half was asked their positions on multiple specific provisions of the reform proposal. This design allowed us to tease out politics from policy by comparing general attitudes toward reform with attitudes toward specific reform policies. We employed the same design with Obamacare — asking half the sample whether they approved of Obamacare, and the other half about the Affordable Care Act’s  specific provisions.

Not surprisingly, the very name “Obamacare” generates scorn among the Texas GOP: 54 percent of voters had an unfavorable opinion of the law, including 83 percent of non-Tea Party and 98 percent of Tea Party Republicans.

But when examining the specific provisions of Obamacare, support exists for some if not all of the major provisions. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans in Texas support giving tax credits to small businesses that offer insurance, allowing children to stay on their parents’ plans until they turn 25, barring insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions and, maybe most surprisingly, creating insurance marketplaces (support for that last provision reaches 65 percent among Tea Party Republicans — the power of markets!).

Majorities of non-Tea Party Republicans and Tea Party Republicans split in opposite directions when it comes to increasing the Medicare payroll tax and giving states the option to expand Medicaid: Non-Tea Party Republicans support these provisions; Tea Party Republicans oppose them.

The poison pill of Obamacare comes in the expansion of government, most notably the mandate that individuals carry health insurance, where 66 percent of Texans expressed opposition, including 85 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans and 96 percent of Tea Party Republicans. Republican majorities of all stripes oppose providing financial assistance to the poor to buy insurance or requiring large businesses to offer insurance.

All in all, if a running tally was taken and each issue area held equal weight, some measure of reform would be the preferred policy option for Texas Republicans. The deal breaker is clearly the individual mandate — which has become the non-negotiable, main point of opposition on the right since before the law’s implementation.

While immigration reform is a perpetual talking point for hopeful GOP officeholders in Texas, the data shows an even greater contrast between politics and the realities of public attitudes than is seen with Obamacare. A majority of Texans oppose comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship, including 70 percent of non-Tea Party and 77 percent of Tea Party Republicans.

But overwhelming support does exist for particular provisions in the reform package recently discussed in the Congress: increasing border security, requiring businesses to verify the immigration status of their workers, and easing immigration restrictions for engineers and scientists who receive advanced degrees in the U.S. Tepid support exists for a guest worker program of sorts for low-skilled workers. But most importantly, when it comes to a pathway to citizenship including a waiting period, fines, taxes and an English proficiency requirement, Democrats, non-Tea Party Republicans and independents all express support. Only a slight majority of Tea Party Republicans expresses opposition, a sign that despite its growing role as a minority constituency within the GOP, the Tea Party can still sway Republican politics.

These dynamics highlight the importance of emphasis. For immigration reform proponents, it is the amnesty bell ringing every hour that strikes fear in Republican candidates who might be tempted to embrace some version of immigration reform. And while Obamacare does in fact have many pieces that are palatable to those on the right, its high-profile critics habitually associate the individual mandate with the law, frequently in heightened rhetorical terms that serve to reinforce these negative attitudes.

Lurking in this discussion is the ever-present conundrum about public opinion dynamics — specifically, how the rhetorical choices of political leaders both inform, and are informed by, public attitudes. Trying to figure out when leaders echo political opinion because it’s safe, and when public opinion is shaped by elite discussions conveyed through media and social groups, is a complex endeavor — if not a fool’s errand. However we choose to sort out when and how the politicians are leading or following public opinion, it is clear that there is space for compromise among voters on health care and immigration that many political leaders, by negligence or by choice, have chosen not to occupy.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at