Few can doubt that Social Security remains the "third rail" of American politics. President Bush flirted with the idea of reforming Social Security but quickly gave it up in 2005 due to a distinct lack of enthusiasm among voters and members of Congress.
While it may not be quite as politically lethal now as it was pre-Bush, there is no doubt that Social Security remains among those issues that most Republcans shudder at touching, since they believe they must always present themselves as "for" protecting the system.
This reality has provided liberal Democrats with a built-in advantage in most political debates over entitlements for decades because it enabled them to put Republicans on the defensive simply by casting their opposition to other proposals for new government aid programs as the product of their wanting to "take Social Security away from old folks," or variations thereof.
But now it appears that in Obamacare Democrats may have stumbled upon the fourth rail, an issue with something of the same sort of lethal consequences to those politicians who approach it in a certain way.
Republican Scott Brown's stunning win in Tuesday's special election to fill the Massachusetts Senate seat occupied for nearly five decades by Ted Kennedy is Exhibit A. Internal polling by Brown's opponent, Democrat Martha Coakley, made clear that the Republican's heavy emphasis on Obamacare as a tax increase struck an extremely responsive chord among voters.
A key reason why this issue worked so well for Brown, according to the Coakley polling, was voter revulsion over the backroom bargains being struck by congressional Democrats to gain passage:
"Coakley's lead dropped significantly after the Senate passed health care reform shortly before Christmas and after the Christmas Eve 'bombing' incident. Polling showed significant concerns with the actions of Senator Nelson to hold out for a better deal."
The power of the Obamacare issue in Brown's stunning surge from being 30 points behind to a five-point victory was certainly not lost among Massachusetts political observers.
The Boston Globe's Scot Lehigh said Brown’s victory "highlights the doubts that dog Democrats, particularly on healthcare. That’s an unfortunate reality - but one they ignore at their peril."
But could Massachusetts be an exception since the state has had near-universal health care coverage for several years, thanks to former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney? If Obamacare is approved, it might well mean that Massachusetts residents could end up paying twice for univeral coverage, once in their home state and a second time at the federal level. That's not an effective sales tool.
Survey data from outside Massachusetts strongly suggests the Bay State is not an exception. Being associated with Obamacare as it currently stands in Congress appears to be a huge handicap for incumbent senators outside of Massachusetts, according to David Brady, Daniel P. Kessler, and Douglas Rivers, writing in today's edition of The Wall Street Journal.
"Where it's popular, Democratic candidates don't have too much of a problem, but where it's unpopular—and that includes most states—the Democratic Senate candidates are fighting an uphill battle," the trio said. "Support for health reform varies in these 11 states from a low of 33% in North Dakota to a high of 48% in Nevada. Democrats trail Republicans in six of the states; three are toss-ups; and in two, Democrats have a solid lead."
Almost from its introduction, the Obamacare proposals put forward in the Senate and House have sparked a marked trend in public opinion: The more survey respondents know about the proposals, the more they oppose them. In the latest Rasmussen Reports survey, 38 percent support the proposals and 56 percent oppose. Those data points have been going in opposite directions for months.
What ought to most worry politicians who favor Obamacare, however, is this: The intensity of the issue is virtually all on the side of opponents. "As has been the case throughout the debate, those who feel strongly about the issue are more likely to be opposed. Just 18% of voters Strongly Favor the plan while 44% are Strongly Opposed," according to Rasmussen.
It's too early for a definitive conclusion but I think these considerations argue strongly in favor of the proposition that a fourth rail is emerging in American politics. Interestingly, where the third rail "cut" against opponents of increased government, this emerging fourth rail "cuts" against advocates of more government.
I suspect that we will have a much clearer idea about all this come November.