First, Caddell and Schoen assume that opposition to comprehensive health care reform is set in stone -- a dubious assumption, particularly in light of the fact (ignored by the authors) that the public’s understanding of what is actually in the bill is imperfect, to say the least. Caddell and Schoen then breezily dismiss the possibility that health care reform will turn out to be popular if it passes:
“The notion that once enactment is forced, the public will suddenly embrace health-care reform could not be further from the truth -- and is likely to become a rallying cry for disaffected Republicans, independents and, yes, Democrats.”
That’s quite a strawman, though: The argument is not that the public will “suddenly embrace health-care reform” as though a switch had been flipped. It’s that if health care reform is effective, it will be popular. It’s that the best way -- the only way in some cases -- to address concerns about health care reform is to just do it then show them that those concerns didn’t come true. Caddell and Schoen don’t even address the possibility that in the months and years after it is signed into law, health care reform will become popular.
Caddell and Schoen could, I suppose, argue that they are concerned only with the very short term political implications of passing health care reform -- that they don’t care about the program’s long-term popularity, only about how it will affect this November’s elections. If so, that’s the kind of myopia that results in Democrats constantly fighting policy and political battles on the Republicans’ turf. When one party refuses to articulate a philosophical approach to government or to enact the policies they believe will be successful, it’s little wonder public debates tend to play out using the other party’s framing.
Nor do I accept the premise that passing health care reform will adversely affect the Democrats this November. The assumption that it will is another blind spot Caddell and Schoen demonstrate: the failure to consider counterfactuals and the indirect ways in which the public reacts to political developments.
In order to conclude that passing health care reform is a political loser, you have to first assess what will happen if Democrats don’t pass reform, and then determine whether the consequences of passing reform are worse than the consequences of not passing reform. But Caddell and Schoen give no indication that they have even considered how things play out if Democrats fail to pass reform. Should Democrats fail to do so, they risk entering the November elections with a demoralized base and with a widespread perception that they are weak and ineffectual. Does those negatives outweigh whatever negatives will result from passing reform? I think they do -- but I’m certain that someone who doesn’t even consider the question has no business offering strategic advice.
And Caddell and Schoen approach the public opinion data in an overly literal way. Polls show most people don’t like the reform package, so Caddell and Schoen conclude that people don’t like it, won’t like it, and won’t like Democrats if they pass it. But that isn’t really how public opinion works. For one thing, voters have imperfect knowledge about the bill. Perhaps more importantly, Caddell and Schoen ignore the extent to which public opinion is driven by visceral, emotional reactions to politicians and their actions. They ignore the possibility that if Democrats pass health care reform, they will be seen by a nervous and economically insecure public as having taken bold and decisive action. They ignore the possibility that, in passing historic reforms they have sought for decades, Democrats will be perceived as both strong and principled. They ignore the possibility that in walking away from a bill they spent a year on, declaring defeat despite controlling both the White House and large majorities in Congress, Democrats would look weak -- and that in doing so out of fear of electoral defeat, they would look unprincipled.
I happen to think all of those possibilities suggest that Democrats would be better off politically -- both this year and for years to come -- if they pass health care reform. But that is by no means a certainty. What is a certainty is that arguments that fail to consider those dynamics, instead relying on a one-dimensional and unduly-literal interpretation of polling and an assumption that it will remain static, simply should not be taken seriously.
To be clear: this is not a rejection of polling. Used properly, polls are valuable tools that can inform a winning strategy. But Caddell and Schoen make the all-to-common mistake of thinking polls are strategy -- that if people say they don’t like X, they don’t like X and never will and you must not to X. That’s a remarkably unsophisticated use of polling, particularly coming from two such distinguished pollsters.
Caddell and Schoen are more convincing when arguing that the public holds broad anti-government attitudes, and that those attitudes argue against passing health care reform. (though they would be still more convincing if they discussed trend lines or the reasons for those attitudes.)
But if progressives believe the public is skeptical of government’s ability to do things that need doing without excessive infringement on individual liberty, they have three choices. They can stipulate to the correctness of that skepticism and refrain from pursuing progressive government programs, in which case they may as well save everyone some time and find another line of work. Or they can lay low and wait for public sentiment to magically change on its own. Or they can show that the government is capable of doing good, by passing effective government programs.
Caddell and Schoen appear not to have considered that the public is skeptical of government because they have seen the government horribly mismanaged (think Hurricane Katrina) and perceive it to be more responsive to the needs of huge banks than to them. People aren’t skeptical of government because they hate Social Security; they’re skeptical of government because they haven’t seen the government do anything like it lately. Successful health care reform could do a lot to change that trend -- and give Democrats a key bragging point for decades to come.
And what do Caddell and Schoen suggest Democrats do instead of passing comprehensive heath insurance reform? An incremental approach that, they insist “can win bipartisan support.” They don’t specify by what magic they plan to convince significant numbers of congressional Republicans to hand Democrats an election-year win, but it seems painfully obvious that any proposal that garners such support will be entirely unimpressive. Besides: If a significant number of Republican votes in Congress can be attained for modest health care initiatives, Democrats can always pursue that strategy next year if necessary. This year is their only shot at comprehensive reform.
Finally, though not related to their strategic assessments, I should note that Caddell and Schoen seem to have forgotten that the point of running for office is doing good things while in office -- and that sometimes politicians should use polling to figure out how to do good things, not whether to do them.