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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Health Reform, Public Opinion, and “Liberal Pundits”

This item is crossposted from ProgressiveFix.
In the wake of Tuesday’s Republican victory in Massachusetts, Scott Winship wrote a post at ProgressiveFix that expressed hope that “liberal pundits” would finally get out of “denial” about the unpopularity of health care reform.
Now as Scott knows, there’s always peril involved in making generalizations about the views of large classes of people. I don’t know which “liberal pundits” he’s thinking about in making the suggestion that there’s a general unwillingness to accept public opinion data on health reform; the links he offers don’t really support the claim. But most of the “liberal pundits” I’ve read in recent months don’t dispute the fact that public support for the particular legislation being discussed in Congress at any given moment has been flagging (though given the very fluid nature of the legislative process, it’s difficult to identify which version the public is reacting to, which is why the variations in the wording of polling questions on health reform so often produce different results).
Scott goes on to mock particular arguments that he views as rationalizations for this alleged unwillingness to accept reality: voters are uninformed, Republicans have misled them, and in any event, a significant part of the opposition to health reform bills is “from the left.”
Are these really just rationalizations? I don’t think so. Poor public information on health reform and Republican lies about “ObamaCare” are germane for the simple reason that public opinion may well change if health reform is enacted, and lo and behold “death panels” aren’t convened, Medicare benefit cuts don’t happen, and “government” does not in fact “take over” health care. And the “opposition from the left” data point is relevant to nervous Democrats in Congress because voters unhappy with the absence of a public option, for example, are not terribly likely to vote for Republican candidates who favor voucherization of Medicare or oppose regulation of health insurers.
Scott also seems to assume that “liberals” who talk about the “will of the majority” being frustrated by the de facto 60-vote requirement in the Senate are talking about public opinion. But all the examples he cites are in fact discussing the “will of the majority” of senators, and the majority of the population they represent. The rules of the Senate, after all, cannot be adjusted daily based on tracking polls of the relative popularity of this or that piece of legislation.
Finally, there’s the apparent motivator of Scott’s post: the Massachusetts results. Should the strong opposition of Scott Brown voters to health care reform (at the federal level, at least) represent an “aha” moment for those with any doubts about public opinion on this issue? Again, I see no atmosphere of denial on the subject; yes, many observers, myself included, have noted that a lot of different things were going on in Massachusetts, and have argued that it was not all just one vast referendum on health reform in Congress. But more to the immediate point, the relevance of the Massachusetts results to public opinion nationally is significantly damaged by its unique status as a state that has already enacted reforms almost identical to those attempted by the pending legislation in Congress. And this, in fact, was Scott Brown’s number one talking point on health care reform: why should Bay State citizens pay taxes to give Nebraska the benefits Massachusetts already enjoys? That’s a pretty compelling argument, on the surface at least, but it’s not one that can be made elsewhere.
Ironically, Scott closes his piece by suggesting that perhaps congressional Democrats should put aside fears about public opinion and enact health reform legislation anyway. In doing so, he reflects the real debate I’ve been hearing among “liberal pundits” for many months now: when given a historic opportunity to achieve a long-held progressive goal which happens to represent an immediate national challenge, should Democrats defer action until public opinion is completely on their side? What’s the point of running for office as a progressive if you aren’t determined to achieve progressive policy goals when you can? Is there any other approach to health reform that might be more popular? Is there any time like the present for action?
These questions don’t automatically answer themselves, but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that health reform advocates are in denial about the political risks involved in health care reform, particularly at a time when Republicans are absolutely refusing to cooperate, and when much of the beltway commentariat has been telling the president for months that he should abandon all goals other than agitating the air for more jobs and lower deficits.
Progressives need data-driven critics like Scott Winship who are willing to contribute to our debates with sometimes troubling information. But in this case, I suspect, to use an old southern expression, he’s just goosing a ghost.

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