‘Torn by conflicting impulses and confusion’

‘TORN BY CONFLICTING IMPULSES AND CONFUSION’…. There’s an overabundance of new polling data that’s been released over the last 24 hours, from a variety of major national outlets. Overall, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, with a little something for everyone.

Perhaps the most common element of the polls is widespread confusion. Take this item, for example, from the New York Times/CBS News poll.

Over all, the poll portrays a nation torn by conflicting impulses and confusion. In one finding, 75 percent of respondents said they were concerned that the cost of their own health care would eventually go up if the government did not create a system of providing health care for all Americans. But in another finding, 77 percent said they were concerned that the cost of health care would go up if the government did create such a system.

For what it’s worth, the poll puts President Obama’s approval rating at 58%, but his handling of health care at 46%. Approval of the Democratic Party (47%) remains much higher than that of the Republican Party (28%), and by 30-point margins, respondents prefer Obama to congressional Republicans on economic and health care decisions.

But there were other polls, offering competing results. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, for example, found support for health care reform dropping off considerably, with a plurality calling the current proposal a “bad idea.” Only two in 10 believe the quality of their health care would improve, and twice as many thought it would get worse.

On the other hand, when given the rough details of the reform proposals, 56% of respondents support reform, and a surtax on the wealthy proved to be even more popular.

A Time magazine poll found that most respondents worried about the consequences of reform, but supportive of “the rough outlines of the health-reform effort as originally described by President Obama,” including support (56%) for a public option.

Gallup, meanwhile, found that Americans generally believe report would improve the system, but doubt that it would offer benefits for them personally.

I imagine antsy policymakers might look through these polls, looking for guidance about public opinion. They probably shouldn’t bother. For one thing, attitudes are all over the map, pointing to confusion and contradictions. For another, as Jon Chait recently noted, polls will likely shift if/when policymakers get something done.

People do not pay close attention to details. The broad message is likely to shape their ultimate view. And the biggest single driver of that opinion is whether health care reform passes. If it does, then it will have a Rose Garden ceremony, lots of commentary about the historical import, liberal celebrations and conservative apoplexy. If it fails, then the plan will be described as a “failure” — a designation intended to describe the political prospects but which is certain to bleed into the public’s estimation of the plan’s substantive merits — and produce endless commentary about liberal overreach, all of which will make people more prone to believe that the plan was a disaster.

Democrats simply have to accept that health care reform is going to be polling badly when they vote on it. There’s no mechanism in the current media configuration that would allow them to convey the details of the plan in a positive way without getting overrun by negative process stories. It’s just not possible. What they have to focus on is which alternative is likely to make them better off: reform passing or reform failing. It’s an easy call, which is why I think reform will pass.

Here’s hoping Chait’s right.