For the love of polls

FOR THE LOVE OF POLLS…. Josh Green posted an interesting item last night about Republican reactions to the success of health care reform, one week later. I’ve never fully been able to appreciate what it is about the Affordable Care Act the GOP hates so intensely, but Green noted Republican attitudes have begun to focus on one simple point.

I just returned from Capitol Hill, where the new health care law is still the preoccupying issue, and the Republican talking point du jour, which seems to have been issued with stage directions instructing that it be delivered in a tone of gravest concern, is that Democrats and President Obama have perpetrated a breathtaking assault on the body politic by passing a law that did not have widespread public support.

I agree that Democrats have taken a political risk, though most polls I’ve seen show people about equally divided on the issue. What lent such a surreal quality to my morning is that several of these folks have held an abiding interest in the intersection of governing and public opinion — only they used to hold the opposite view.

Right. As Green explained several years ago, when he worked here at the Monthly, Republicans of the Bush era went to great lengths to reject the notion of governing based on polls. The very idea was mocked and dismissed as unworthy of true leaders. When policymakers choose to confront a great challenge, they can’t just take the public’s temperature and base their judgment on shifting whims and attitudes. Green noted, “Announcing that one ignores polls, then, is an easy way of conveying an impression of leadership, judgment, and substance.”

Bush himself boasted repeatedly that was a president who governed “based upon principle, and not polls and focus groups.”

Now, the point of Green’s piece was that Bush wasn’t telling the truth, and that his White House relied on survey data just like every other modern administration. The rhetoric was about creating a facade and cultivating an image, not reflecting reality. But the larger observation is still relevant — Republicans rejected the notion that polls should dictate policy decisions. Such an approach is fundamentally weak and unprincipled.

Except now, that is, when Republicans have concluded that polls are all that matters, and to approve legislation that polls poorly is some kind of un-American act, betraying the consent of the governed.

By recent GOP standards, wouldn’t President Obama deserve credit for standing tall and delivering on his campaign promises, even in the face of discouraging polling data? Isn’t it more important to do what’s right than what’s popular?