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Should the Polls Doom Health-Care Reform?

David Brooks argued today that "the public has soured on Obama’s policy proposals" and the president should respond by moderating his pace and trimming his ambitions. There's a certain logic to this: Obama's poll numbers really have dropped. The public really does disapprove of his health-care reform effort, or at least disapproves of what they think his heath-care reform effort includes. But before I sign on to the Brooks Plan, I'd like to know if he disagrees with Kevin Drum's narrative of how all this happened.

There's not even the briefest mention of the primary cause for all this: the deliberate decision by the Republican Party to hand over the reins to its most extreme wing and adopt a scorched earth counterattack to Obama's entire agenda. He agreed to cut the stimulus package by $100 billion and put 40% of it into tax cuts. That cut no ice. Democrats proposed a cap-and-trade proposal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions because it uses market mechanisms instead of crude command-and-control directives — and then adopted hundreds of compromises to water it down. Didn't matter. Max Baucus has been "negotiating" over healthcare reform with Republicans in the Senate for months and Obama has been careful not to criticize. But that turned out to be a charade. Tim Geithner's financial bailout plan was limited and business friendly. No matter.

Independents haven't "swung against" healthcare reform. They've been the target of a massive campaign of lies and demagoguery. Brooks says that Obama needs to embrace "fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority," but every time he's done that it's gotten him nowhere. In fact, just the opposite: for the most part these proposals just invite blistering counterattacks from supposedly conservative Republicans.

This is not idle speculation: Polls show the American people believe all manner of lies and falsehoods about health-care reform. When the specific plan is described to them, they flip from opposition to support. Time has not proven an ally of honest debate: the extra months Max Baucus demanded to allow for negotiations with Republicans -- precisely the strategy Brooks advocates -- has been used to smear, distort, and mislead about the underlying legislation.

There is a famous poll from 1994 that shows the American people had a clearer idea of Clinton's health-care reform bill at the beginning of the process than at the end. This is a serious problem: Polls are a good barometer of the mood of the public, but if the public is systematically misled, it's hard to say what the poll is measuring. A few months ago, health-care reform was quite popular. Today, it's unpopular. Is that because the public knows more about the bill? Or less?

It's hard to say. And since it's hard to say, Democrats are probably going to pass something, because they believe passing something will be better for the country than not passing something, and that's sort of their job. Luckily, there are methods of accountability in our democracy: if the electorate does not approve of the policy the Democrats pass, they can defeat those Democrats and elect candidates who will repeal the offending legislation. That's what happened to the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act in 1989. It could happen again. But better the public judges them on actual legislation than the vague and inaccurate impressions of that legislation formed amidst loud obstruction and a skillful smear campaign.

On a related note: I don't want to fully endorse this argument, but remember when the grand virtue of George W. Bush was that he was so decisive a leader that he ignored polls and trusted that history would ratify his decisions?

By Ezra Klein  |  September 1, 2009; 2:25 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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I am getting really tired of people complaining that the voters don't know what Obama's healthcare plan actually does when Obama has steadfastly refused to actually have a healthcare plan.

Posted by: spotatl | September 1, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

practically since the Inauguration I've considered that Obama's greatest contribution to our nation in its current state is to stand unwaveringly as a voice of reason, and illustrate the noise-to-signal ratio across the land.

What happens to subdue all this noise, I don't quite know. I'm not sure if Obama himself has a plan beyond this, or simply intends to prevail with reason even if it takes eight years. Or fail trying even, perhaps.

But the media having bite-size words to describe it, and the people beginning to see its insanity, are together the sine qua non for progress out of it.

Posted by: wapomadness | September 1, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

and I neglected to say thank you to Ezra - I appreciate your making the effort to put this into words, to help cut through the cacophony.

It's not about health care, or even politics. It's about the overthrow of reason through sheer scale of unreason, by actions unskillful and meaningless, but coldly willing to inflict massive violence on the truth.

Posted by: wapomadness | September 1, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

i took the liberty of reprinting these words from jasper...

"Azdemocrat: First, healthcare reform was never supposed to reach BHO's desk before November, or so, so up to this point AFAIK everything's on track to the extent that could be hoped (as you say, we knew all along that the GOP was bound to play an obstructionist role). Second, I think that, by really making a major, very public and well-documented effort at bipartisanship, Democrats will reap a public relations victory at the end of the day, when a unipartisan bill eventually makes it to Obama's desk.

I predict come New Year's, people will once again be marveling at how (yet again) they underestimated the political acumen of Obama, Axelrod, and Emanuel."

Posted by: Jasper99 | September 1, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: jkaren | September 1, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

David Brooks's article is a disgrace. It's disingenuous and builds a complete theory on the lies his fellow Republicans told the public. He should be ashamed.

Posted by: impikk | September 1, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

As I've said,

One of the biggest problems with the filibuster is that it makes it far harder to learn by experimenting, to see first hand if the claims against a program or idea were false (or grossly, ridiculously false). It really hurts the U.S, when other advanced countries are far freer than us to experiment and learn, with their completely Democratic legislatures as opposed to our Senate, where Wyoming gets the same votes as California with about 70 times the citizens, and where with the filibuster on top of that, senators representing only about 10% of the citizens can stop a bill favored by senators representing about 90%.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | September 1, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Your buddy Drum's defense of Obama's alleged bipartisanship is laughable. Calling 40% of the stimulus "tax cuts" is highly misleading. There were three "tax cuts" in the stimulus: (1) the annual AMT fix which happens every year anyways; (2) a neglibible reduction in the payroll tax, which is more like a deferred compensation scheme than a tax; and (3) the $8000 first-time low-income home buyer tax credit, not exactly a Republican plan. Calling Waxman-Markey "market-based" would be hilarious if the underlying plan weren't so dangerously flawed. And Obama could have endorsed a bipartisan plan from the get-go in Wyden-Bennett - instead he's sat on the sideline and offered vocal support for Kennedy-Dodd and the House Democrat plans, the most left-oriented and employer-based plans out of any plan on the table. To call these actions attempts at bipartisanship completely discredit Drum, and you by extension of your link to him in support.

Posted by: Dellis2 | September 1, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, your constant and unwavering support of Obama no matter what he doesn't do is making you look pretty smarmy.
But then, you have health insurance.

Posted by: kmblue | September 1, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Well, said. It's what elections are for. Dems were elected to pass health care reform. They will pass a bill because they know they have no chance if they don't. A year later, the propaganda lies will subside and voters will have a chance to accept or reject the health care entitlement for all Americans, or not. I'm betting they will like it, starting from the day it's passed. Polls will improve the day it's passed.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | September 1, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

cmpnwtr- do you think that people are fully aware of what the individual mandate is? That insurance companies will not be allowed to offer private insurance off outside of the health care exchanges? I think there is a lot that people will not like that is completely off of the radar screen right now.

Posted by: spotatl | September 1, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Ooooh, those nasty old Republicans! If only people REALLY UNDERSTOOD what the Democrats are proposing then they would support the proposals! So, we should pass legislation even if people oppose it, because people are such idiotic sheep!

Posted by: ostap666 | September 1, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Drum: "Independents haven't 'swung against' healthcare reform. They've been the target of a massive campaign of lies and demagoguery."

The Dems have been shovelling every bit as much bull as the Reps - beginning with the canard that the opponents of their bills are all shills for corporate interests.

EzK: "When the specific plan is described to them, they flip from opposition to support."

I imagine it the response is highly dependent upon how the descriptions are phrased. It's hard to distill five disparate, lengthy bills into a few neutrally-shaded descriptive sentences. I mean Ezra characterizes the various bills as "modest" but I don't think any fair-minded analyst would consider them such. It would be easy to cherry-pick elements in the bills to engender support or opposition.

Posted by: tbass1 | September 1, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Calling the opposition liars has become the substitute for explaining the bill, AND its ramifications and consequences. There's been a kind of laziness in the administration about knowing, and putting forth, what all this would involve. I doubt Mr. Klein himself knows, while calling its opponents liars. For instance he wrote in a column a couple of weeks ago that under this plan (which one?) there will be no ceiling on what people can spend. Really? How does he know that? In fact, there is a tremendous lack of understanding about what the new situation would be, what the rules and limitations would be, what the consequences would be to medicare and the elderly. This howling void, created entirely by the dishonesty and/or laziness of the top advisors, has naturally drawn all manner of fear and protest.

Posted by: truck1 | September 1, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

what i wonder is how come so many public writers give deference to david brooks's polemic writing?

norman orenstein from american enterprise insitute wrote about obama's "realistic" political strategy today in the washington post

bob herbert wrote about how texas executes people in the new york times

dana milbank wrote about the afganistan war policy in the washington post

in the latimes james oliphant wrote about how senators and representatives from the states that would benefit the most are the most opposed to health reform

how come drum and klein et al chose to react to brooks over oliphant, milbank, herbert or orenstein?

Posted by: jamesoneill | September 1, 2009 5:17 PM | Report abuse

> That insurance companies will not be allowed to offer private insurance off >outside of the health care exchanges? I think there is a lot that people will not >like that is completely off of the radar screen right now.

Well, that particular tidbit is off the radar screen because it's false. Same with the idea that there would be caps on what people could spend. Seriously, how would that even work? Can someone explain to me an enforcement mechanism that wouldn't waste more money than it would save?

At any rate, this isn't an insurmountable challenge on messaging, but it legitimately is a hard one. And there's been a bit of tacking back and forth from an argument that's basically about costs to one that's more about security of coverage.

But this is less about Obama than it is an entirely predictable political dynamic, due to an increasingly polarized electorate and huge amounts of special interest cash sloshing around the system. It's an easy play to exagerrate uncertainty to practically epistemological levels, even though it's frankly ridiculous -- the bills are a thousand pages, but some people have read them, so when somebody says yes, that's in there, or no, it's not, this is hardly rocket science.

Posted by: Mike_Russo | September 1, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

well, well, well... we have the party that lied about its support of Veterans (it did very little to support them), told women to go take a hike when it comes to fair chances at fair pay acting once again like they are the guardian of the people.

If anyone buys that - they should just do us all a favor and take themselves out - now. Or, at the very least - get themselves neutered, certainly just stay away from the polls.

The party of Christians doing the most unChristian things. Lying, telling people that general health is an 'up for profit' item. You really think Christ himself would agree with that? Did he not forsake the moneychangers - and someone's life was not at stake.

Obviously people must be paid fairly to care for the ill, and obviously there must be enough margin to plow back into improving technologies. But to tell someone that they don't deserve coverage, or should have to fork over more than half their income to get it - is patently obscene. To allow company after company to excise those who start to cost more than they planned is patently obscene.

To deny that their aren't thousands of people who now hold jobs that once provided insurance but no longer do - is to deny truth and reality. To deny that there are millions doing necessary work in businesses that for decades have not been able to provide insurance is ludicrous. To deny that employers frequently change the quality of benefit available to their workers is being obtuse.

The GOP (Grotesquely Obtuse Pigs) demonstrated its opposition to all things sensible in the first days of the Obama administration when they nearly unanimously voted against the Ledbetter Act. Oddly enough - excepting Specter - the only pigs to vote for the act were the women in the party. Not a single male except Specter thought that women should have a reasonable chance to prove they are being had at the pay window.

You cannot be against abortion and pro slow, painful, torturous death for lack of prompt medical care. You just can't - not if you want to parade around as the family values people.

Oh - their idea of family values - mom stays at home or gets screwed at work. Dad works but gets screwed by the insurance company. Some values.

Posted by: TPartier | September 1, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Uhhh... private insurance would be forbidden from offering individuals healthcare outside of the exchange. That is most certainly part of the bill but it has not been publicized at all.

Posted by: spotatl | September 1, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

There is no one bill yet, and a lot is going to change.

Ezra, I think you and Kevin Drum have it right. It was a very quick swing in the polls, and this sort of volatility perhaps shows that (1) it's not necessarily permanent and (2) people are paying attention -- and will continue to do so, as the arguments play out.

One thing I would add is that it seems to me that part of Obama's performance poll drop is from Democrats, liberal and progressive, who are angry with him for not being forceful enough. Maybe half of the percentage drop? Just look at the tenor of some of the comments to your blog and to other blogs over the past month. Many of the commenters who are in favor of reform, suggesting perhaps a far larger number of people with the same attitude, don't understand that this is a congressional process and that the bills are not even to the floors yet, are not finalized, and mistakenly think that the Administration has fumbled the ball.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | September 1, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Mike Russo is right - it's not rocket science, and this crap about bills being 1000 pages long - they are... and then some. But the number of words on each page is actually quite small, nowhere near what the uninformed citizen is likely thinking. I would guess that if you were to print the bill out in the common format most of us are familiar with they would be about 200 pages single line space and 400 double line space.

Lengthy still, but not the overwheling scenario painted by the lying pricks on the other side of the debate.

Posted by: TPartier | September 1, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Spotatl: I've read the bills. You're wrong -- heck, section 134 of the House bill is entitled "Application to qualified health benefit plans not offered through the Health Insurance Exchange."

Posted by: Mike_Russo | September 1, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

"When the specific plan is described to them, they flip from opposition to support"

The plan described is not the plan they would get. That plan is described in the so-called "lies."

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | September 1, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

"There's not even the briefest mention of the primary cause for all this: the deliberate decision by the Republican Party to hand over the reins to its most extreme wing and adopt a scorched earth counterattack to Obama's entire agenda."

This has not happened since George Bush tried to reform Social Security.

Posted by: kingstu01 | September 1, 2009 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Mike- I am just going off of a literal reading of this section. Individual health insurance coverage that is not grandfathered health insurance coverage under subsection (a) may only be offered on or after the first day of Y1 as an Exchange-participating health benefits plan."

How does that not say that companies may not offer individual insurance to people outside of the exchange?

Posted by: spotatl | September 1, 2009 8:43 PM | Report abuse

What section and what bill are you talking about? I just did some quick searches for that language and didn't find it anywhere.

Posted by: Mike_Russo | September 1, 2009 10:41 PM | Report abuse

I am looking at page 19 lines 1 through 5.

Posted by: spotatl | September 2, 2009 8:47 AM | Report abuse

Section 102 part c ss 1

Posted by: spotatl | September 2, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

tbass1 You should mind your own advice:

"It's hard to distill five disparate, lengthy bills into a few neutrally-shaded descriptive sentences."

Posted by: HighPlainsJoker1 | September 2, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I don't believe Republicans are stupid but they certainly believe the educated youth can't use simple logic to debunk their position. For example: They say, the U.S has the greatest healthcare system because of profit motivation, which will end with govt. HC. We also have the greatest military technology and weaponry which is driven by govt spending. But in their mind it will change with Govt. Option HC, Yeah right. Give taxes cuts businesses that is the only way to spur economic recovery. What will this do if it goes to the top 20% earners who are saving their money because of the poor economy; which is precisely what they are doing.

Posted by: johnsontrotter | September 2, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Here is another example of poor economic logic by Conservatives. How can the Govt run health care if they can not run the U.S Post Office which is in the red. Yeah right, the post office was terminated by email which is a technology advancement. It's an antiquated service which is their primary service that's why they are in the red. What other service allows you to send a letter anywhere in the U.S for $.49 cents? It would be a failure if I paid for 10 stamps and mailed 10 envelops and only 5 made it to their destination. However, they have a 95% delivery percentage. Yeah right Sean Hannity.

Posted by: johnsontrotter | September 2, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Here is the ultimate decision for everyone to make on the Health Care option. Do you trust the effort to lower Health care Cost with a Govt. option or Wall Street (Insurance) to provide you with quality affordable care for profit. Also, notice there are no simple polls Asking "Do you want the current healthcare plan or nothing? Yes or No "

Posted by: johnsontrotter | September 2, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Poor democrats just want to be loved, cannot comprehend that America is a non liberal nation.

Poor democrats will go down in flames over it. Sad perhaps, but this libertarian is licking his chops for 2010.

Posted by: gorak | September 3, 2009 5:31 AM | Report abuse

The health care proposal ? Exactly what is it ? That is the problem, no one can explain it - not congress at their town hall meetings, they don't have answers, not the president, he talks in platitudes and gives an excellent speach. The house bill is so open to interpretation, I suggest purposely, to allow the writers of the rules of the bill to interpret it as they choose after the bill is passed into law. There is a lack of trust for the administration and the government out here in fly over country. Where are the guarantees written into the bill, such as - there will be no rationing, the cuts in Medicare will only be for fraud, no illegal immigrants will be eligible for health benefits, etc. Guarantees and prohibitions are a must at this point since the trust is gone and cannot be reinstated without demonstrating truth and that will take time. Lastly, how in the world can any Politician from the President to the most junior congressman or woman expect the public to accept a health plan that they themselves are not required to accept ? What is going on here - the politicians work for us and we are given a substandard health care plan while they enjoy the best there is? What is wrong with this picture ? It is absurd !

Posted by: brin | September 3, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

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