‘The repercussions they will suffer will be huge’

‘THE REPERCUSSIONS THEY WILL SUFFER WILL BE HUGE’…. The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll offers a few interesting insights on health care. In particular, the results suggest Democrats would be committing political suicide if they let this opportunity fail.

First, let’s note a few top-line results. President Obama’s approval rating stands at 48% in this poll. On the generic ballot questions, Dems lead Republicans by three points, one point better than in January, and Democrats still enjoy a modest lead over the GOP on overall favorability. Congress’ overall approval rating is down to a humiliating 17%, its lowest point since late 2008.

Specifically on the issue of the day, however, the divisions on health care are pretty stark. A 46% plurality believe it would be better to see the Democratic proposal pass, while 45% would rather see it fail and keep the status quo (this is better than December, when the numbers leaned in the other direction). Just 36% believe the reform plan is a good idea, though that total is up five points since January.

This was symptomatic of the overall divisions — 34% of poll respondents said they’ll be less likely to vote for their representative if they vote to kill reform, and 36% said they’ll be less likely to vote for their representative if they vote to pass reform.

So, what’s an on-the-fence Democratic lawmaker to think? These are the numbers they should probably pay the closest attention to:

Democratic respondents are overwhelmingly supportive of Obama’s health care plan — they think it’s a good idea by a 64-16 percent margin, according to the poll. [Pollster Peter Hart] argues that such strong support from the base will ultimately make a “yes” vote an easier sell for Democrats who are on the fence.

The key concern for these lawmakers isn’t losing some voters in the middle, he says. “It is alienating the base.”

“From my point of view, it might look like a difficult vote,” Hart says. “But they don’t have a choice. The repercussions they will suffer will be huge.”

Dems also must be cognizant of the enthusiasm gap — 67% of Republicans said they’re “very interested” in the midterm elections, compared with 46% of Democrats.

“If the Democrats are going to close that gap, they’ve got to get their people excited,” Hart added. “And I don’t see how you get those people if you vote no” on health care reform.

Some readers have emailed me lately, asking whether I think the reform bill will pass when push comes to shove. My answer is always the same: if common sense prevails, Dems have no choice but to succeed. If Democrats work for a year, pass reform in both chambers, and then let it die anyway, it would be electoral suicide.

But that’s not a firm answer, because Democrats’ capacity for self-destruction can be extraordinary.