IF POLLS ARE DRIVING THE CALCULATIONS…. It’s obviously a debate based on little more than speculation — would congressional Democrats be better off going into the midterm cycle after passing health care reform (boosting the base, proving Dems can govern) or after failing (denying the right a rallying cry)?

I’ve long been of the opinion that passing reform — in addition to being a monumental breakthrough for those suffering under the status quo — would also offer a net gain for Democrats.

A new poll tries to find out.

A new national survey from Public Policy Polling (D) suggests that Democrats are now between a rock and a hard place when it comes to health care reform. Whether they pass it or not, they would still trail the Republicans in a generic ballot test — though it’s possible that passing the bill could be the better path.

The Republicans’ modest lead on the generic-ballot question doesn’t change much under either scenario. PPP communications director Tom Jensen argues that the results should encourage Dems to seal the deal.

Here’s the bottom line on health care at this point: the political damage for Democrats has been done…. Would Democrats be in a better position right now if they hadn’t even touched the issue? Probably. But what’s the point of being in power if you don’t deal with things like health care?

Democrats are primed to have a brutal election year right now. It might be nice if they actually had something to show for it.

Greg Sargent adds some worthwhile context for Dems to consider:

Eric Kleefeld opines that Dems are caught between a “rock and a hard place.” That may be, but consider it this way. Let’s say the rock represents passing reform, and the hard place represents shelving it. If reform passes, Dems have a concrete accomplishment to go out and sell — and have a chance of changing voters’ minds about it. In other words, the rock, with enough sweat and toil, can perhaps be moved.

But the hard place — i.e., shelving reform — can’t be moved. If Dems shelve it, the plan will remain the same death panel-laden product of shady backroom dealing that currently exists in voters’ minds. And Republicans will see to it that voters are reminded that Dems tried to jam it down their throats — and remind voters that Dems are ineffectual, to boot. The hard place won’t budge, and Republicans will grind Dems’ faces into it.

I agree, but I’d add one other element that’s inherently hard to predict.

The poll can’t take into consideration the way in which a historic victory may change the larger political climate. If the bill becomes law, Americans will see a major signing ceremony, a new round of stories about how Obama and Dems snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (“comeback” narrative), and there will be widespread coverage of how the new law affects individual families, a development that would undermine the caricature and help make reform look a lot better.

What’s more, some of the most popular provisions of the reform proposal would kick in right away — consumer protections — and get talked up during congressional races.

Those responding to the poll aren’t considering any part of this dynamic, because it doesn’t exist. The only way to make it happen is to deliver on reform.

I don’t know how it could be much clearer that Dems have to pass … the … damn … bill.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.