How should we think about bad poll numbers for good bills?
If you were going to wring the mockery and hypocrisy out of David Brooks's column yesterday and extract a serious critique from it, I think it would be this: Should public disapproval of a piece of legislation force its supporters to rethink its merits?
In general, public opinion doesn't have much impact on the judgments of policy elites. Deficit hawks take a certain pride in the fact that actual people are going to hate everything that needs to be done, while the hawks themselves are willing to make the tough choices that fiscal responsibility requires (and that, in most cases, won't affect them at all). When the Iraq war was unpopular, its backers said that you can't lead by polls, and when Social Security reform tanked, David Brooks lamented that Americans want the impossible combination of "high entitlement spending and low taxes."
In the specific case of health-care reform -- a bill that hasn't yet been implemented -- there's also the question of what the poll is testing. There's a difference between learning about people's impressions of the bill they think passed and learning about what people think of the bill that actually passed.
Health-care reform, of course, got a lot of coverage, over a long period of time. But a lot of that coverage was coverage of demagogic attacks ("death panels," for instance, or most every word out of Rush Limbaugh's mouth) and partisan conflict. Is anyone confident that most Americans -- or even 10 percent of Americans -- really had the exchanges explained to them, or the interaction between the mandate and the subsidies and the insurer regulations? Do most people realize the bill's total price tag will be about 4 percent of what we spend on health care in a year? And that its savings and new revenues will actually amount to more than that, and so the deficit will go down? And what of the polls showing the bill's component parts are popular?
Moreover, there's good evidence that this bill will be popular when it actually goes into effect. In Massachusetts, a bill that works the same way was implemented years ago, and it's so popular that even noted health-care reform opponent Scott Brown supports it.
Now, you may hold the view that unpopular bills shouldn't be implemented no matter their merits, that it's a typical elite failure to think that policy can or should move despite public disapproval. The problem is, I don't know anyone who holds to this view when the policy under question is policy they themselves support. If you hold that view but didn't believe we should go into Iraq when the people seemed to support it and then withdraw our forces as soon as they began to oppose it, you don't really hold that view. And I don't know of anyone who took those positions, for those reasons, on the Iraq War.
Which isn't to say that people who support a given piece of legislation shouldn't be unnerved when the public opposes it. But the problem isn't that polls reflect on the substance of policy. It's that they reflect on the difficulties -- or ease -- policy will have being passed, and then implemented. Very good policy can poll quite poorly, and very bad policy not only can -- but often does -- poll quite well. As a policy writer, I have the luxury of making judgments about the merits of these questions, but obviously I don't have to run for reelection or represent my constituents or implement legislation. I don't envy those who do.
Chart credit: Pollster.com.
| October 27, 2010; 10:25 AM ET
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