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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:

By Ezra Klein  | October 27, 2010; 10:25 AM ET
Categories:  Polls  
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"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. "

Ezra, why do you lie so much? Provisions of the bill have been going into effect since day 1. I hope you don't think that someday you'll be a journalist ...

Posted by: illogicbuster | October 27, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

I think David Brooks main point was that all the Democratic whining about "secret money from God knows where" being the reason why they are going to suffer significant mid-term losses is crap.

The two most likely explanations:

1. The current unemployment rate (Ezra's preferred "structural explanation)

2. Enacting legislation based on an ideological agenda that a majority of Americans disagree with (David Brooks preferred explanation).

Posted by: jnc4p | October 27, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Obama gave what, 30 speeches about the health care reform effort. If he can't explain his bill to the public in all that time, the problem is the bill, not the public.

Saying "the people are just too dumb to understand our policy" is a way to comfort oneself in failure, not a blueprint for success.

Posted by: tomtildrum | October 27, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

I think everyone is making this too complicated. The Medicare prescription drug benefit was not popular when it passed. The public oppposed the 42 to 40 in annenberg poll around passage. It wasn't the only poll to show confusion & disapproval. The Medicare prescription drug bill was a far easier bill to explain and was based on a principle (helping seniors with drug costs) that routinely polled in the 80s. The simple fact is that nothing gets more popular in Congress. The process drags down the approval of everything it touches. This is going to be especially true on health care as it's an issue that American feel particularly vulnerable about.

Posted by: unitas19 | October 27, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, by the time the provisions of this bill kick in for me, I will be eligible for Medicare and bankrupt. Until 2014, I have the honor of paying over $1,000 a month for health insurance (a group plan, not individual coverage). I'm not feeling the joy.

Posted by: frenzic40 | October 27, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

It may be a great law which will do all sorts of wonderful things...
But probably not...
based on the usual dreck and woe that comes out the cesspool of congressional efforts.
What Epic political folly to delay implementation for so long while everybody's costs are still allowed to rise dramatically faster than the CPI.
If voters don't have anything to show for passage of this health "reform" bill then how can I support it when my rates are still going up $1200 a year. That's $4800 more PER YEAR by the time the law goes into effect. I am still left with a rigged market that uses pre-existing excuses to jack up rates and limit my fair ability to shop around. The only people that this law is helping are insurance companies. It isn't helping me no matter how you spin it.
Rather than giving me a plan like his senate plan, rather than saving me $2500 per year, as he promised! Obama has done nothing to help me.
That is why we are sick of the Washington "elites" who are so far out of touch with what we deal with everyday in the REAL America. A suggestion to all of you elite pundits and politicos who live exclusively in the Washington bubble - pull your heads out and start looking at what is going on beyond your myopic world of "policy" Your policies are killing this country.

Posted by: motodude | October 27, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

unitas19: "The simple fact is that nothing gets more popular in Congress." This. A thoughsand times this.

Posted by: MosBen | October 27, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Methinks David Brooks struck a nerve. :)

The point of his critique is not whether or not public disapproval of a piece of legislation should force its supporters to rethink its merits. His point is that its supporters had better rethink their desire to maintain their office.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 27, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

As an elitist myself, I have no trouble with elitists running our government. Consider the alternative.

Us bi-coastals ought to just own it, sort of like how they say "redneck and proud" elsewhere.

A functioning representative democracy requires some insulation from the passions of the public.

People judge politicians at election time, but in between, it's their job to do what they think is best.

Ideology aside, I want educated, thoughtful people weighing those options.

If politics were a popularity contest, we'd be begging the IMF for an austerity plan by now.

Posted by: itstrue | October 27, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

"Us bi-coastals ought to just own it, sort of like how they say "redneck and proud" elsewhere." posted by itstrue

Yes, California is such an inspiration to us all.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 27, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Whatever, you're just a hater. Besides, I really look up to places like Oklahoma for their forward thinking leadership in cutting edge innovation. Not to mention the food.

Posted by: itstrue | October 27, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Whatever, bgmma. You're just a player-hater. Besides, I really look up to places like Oklahoma for their forward thinking leadership in cutting edge innovation. Not to mention the food.

Posted by: itstrue | October 27, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

"Besides, I really look up to places like Oklahoma for their forward thinking leadership in cutting edge innovation. Not to mention the food."

Which has what, exactly, to do with running the government?

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 27, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse


Wait, let me guess. The "player" I supposedly hate is.....itstrue, the self-styled player/elitist.

Teach me to respond to juveniles.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 27, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

FYI: I think you accidentally posted the wrong web address for the link to the Brooks column. It links to one of your blogs from earlier this year.

Posted by: Red79 | October 27, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Jeez. Guess I touched a nerve too.

But seriously, there are leftie and rightie examples of states that have reasonable fiscal health, even in these times. Oregon is in decent shape. So's Texas. Purplish North Dakota is running a surplus, last I checked. Anywhere that lets the experts be in charge, be they D's or R's, has a better shot at balancing a budget. California is not one of those places.

I happen to live in a rightie state (Georgia) that has to move from a $21 billion budget in '08 to a $15 billion one in '11, with almost a million more people calling the place home since then. And they're talking about even more tax cuts. It's not one of those places either.

California can't balance a budget because of the 2/3 majority it's required since the 70s, when a referendum passed that enables a minority to hamstring things ad infinitum.

Georgia can't do it because people here don't connect services, like trauma systems, to taxes, like the $10 fee to support ours that will almost certainly fail on next week's ballot. The same people will curse the government when it takes a half hour for an ambulance to arrive in their rural area.

Which brings me to elitists. Who wants to pay taxes? Most people don't. Who wants roads, bridges and health care? Most people do. I trust elites to negotiate this paradox. I like statesmen.I don't trust populists. California has a legislative system that magnifies populist tendencies, left and right. Georgia has a system that rewards panderers and punishes those who need to make the tough decisions.

So I guess that means we're in agreement about something, even though you're not very nice.

Posted by: itstrue | October 27, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

That was a much less juvenile sounding post, itstrue.

PS I don't think a Georgian qualifies as bicoastal. :)

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 27, 2010 6:24 PM | Report abuse

"we should go into Iraq when the people seemed to support it" when was that ? As I recall, for months, public opinion was split in three roughly equal thirds, invade, don't invade and invade only if the Security council approves. The third choice is silly. If meant seriously, it was the same as don't invade as there was no chance of security council approval. One might imagine it just meant "I take the middle option which leaves me some wiggle room."

In the event, when it was clear to everyone both that the Security Council wouldn't authorize an invasion *and* that we were invading, a majority supported the invasion. I think that just means that people think that, since we are invading, it is better for them to support the troops.

Or to put it another way, I think the pattern of poll results was exactly what you would expect if a President insisted on invading a country which most people thought we shouldn't invade.

All this is irrelevant history, since 2003 was long long ago and we agree that policymakers shouldn't follow public opinion (and confusion about the facts was as extreme then with a plurality believing that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11). However, I think you are confusing the inside the beltway conventional wisdom with public opinion (I think you were more susceptible getting it on talk TV than you are now when you participate in the discussion, ask questions and find out how ignorant other pundits really are) .

I haven't read that Brooks column and I sure don't plan to if that's what's left after you wring out the hypocrisy and mockery. As you note, what is left is more hypocricy as Brooks generally doesn't believe it is honorable let alone obligatory to follow the polls.

Posted by: rjw88 | October 27, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

There's plenty of progressives that didn't like the bill because it wasn't progressive enough.

Posted by: GrrrlRomeo | October 28, 2010 5:59 AM | Report abuse

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