It’s going to be unpopular; vote for it anyway

IT’S GOING TO BE UNPOPULAR; VOTE FOR IT ANYWAY…. Throughout the spring and summer, the operative word for opponents of health care reform was “delay.” There was an obvious strategy behind the approach, and it’s working.

With every week, and every month, that drags by, health-care reform becomes a bit less popular. At this point, disapproval of the president’s plan — if not of his plan’s ideas — outpolls approval. That’s a function of the legislative process. Of stories about congressional infighting and of anti-change campaigns mounted by the opposition and of the risk aversion of members of Congress. Almost all major domestic legislation follows the same path of public approval giving way to public disapproval.

That makes it even easier for conservative Democrats and the mythical moderate Republicans to abandon the effort. And thus the effort gets abandoned. What usually happens next is that the opposition wins the following election and reformers spend the next 15 years lamenting all the deals they didn’t take, and the country ends up with 10 million more uninsured, and 100,000 more needlessly dead, and so on.

The polls, to be sure, have become more discouraging, for all of these reasons. But I’m reminded of something Jon Chait recently argued: the 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.

Now, that was a month ago, and Jon’s optimism may have waned since. But the larger point still seems right to me. The often excruciating political process, in combination with an aggressive campaign of lies and misinformation from the right, is bound to weaken support for reform. And this becomes an excuse for more infighting, tinkering, and arguing, which in turn weakens support further. It’s quite a vicious cycle.

I suspect policymakers will be pleasantly surprised by the shift in public attitudes if/when they pass a health care reform bill that Americans have sought for a few generations now.