There will be a mountain of analysis regarding the Brown victory in Massachusetts last night and what it means for health care reform. But what is striking to me this morning, skimming my RSS feeds, is the same thing I have found striking throughout the past year — how willfully ignorant liberal advocates of health care reform continue to be about public opinion on the Senate- and House-passed versions of health care reform.
There’s no need for extended analysis of the polling to make my point. Start with the basic favor/oppose trend for health care reform:
You can argue that people are uninformed. You can argue that Republicans have misled them. You can argue that people support something called “health care reform” as a general concept. But the numbers are what they are — only a minority supports the bills under consideration.
Faced with such numbers, reform advocates have defensively pointed out that much of the opposition to health care reform comes from the left, as if that somehow rendered the bills’ unpopularity irrelevant. What is devastating to their case, however, is a look at the intensity of views toward reform.
When assessing polling results, I have found it is crucial to employ what I call the Kessler Rule, after Third Way’s Jim Kessler. Jim argues that anytime someone tells a pollster that they are “somewhat” supportive or opposed to something, it basically means they don’t have strong feelings one way or another or that they have so little interest in the issue that they haven’t even formed an opinion. Rasmussen has been asking its respondents whether they “strongly” or “somewhat” support or oppose health care reform for months. The first time they asked was in August, during the congressional recess, when they found that 43 percent of respondents were strongly opposed, compared with 23 percent who were strongly supportive. Keep in mind, this was when the public option was still included in all major proposals, so liberal backlash was unlikely to have been much of a factor in this contrast.
The most recent poll Rasmussen conducted was over the weekend. Results: 44 percent strongly opposed, 18 percent strongly supportive.
You would think that such numbers would dent the confidence of reform advocates that the public overwhelmingly supported their own preferences. You would be wrong. Instead, incredibly, health care reform was cited throughout the fall and winter as Exhibit A for why we need to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate! If something as popular as health care reform faced such difficulty winning passage, it was argued, then the Senate can no longer govern!
Now with Scott Brown’s defeat of Martha Coakley, advocates have bent over backwards making the case that the election of a conservative in one of the most liberal states in the country — to fill a seat vacated by the patron saint of health care reform, at a time when the result would determine the fate of reform — had nothing to do with public opposition to reform.
Rasmussen’s election night survey says everything you need to know about how much these advocates are kidding themselves: 78 percent of Brown voters strongly oppose the health care bills before Congress.
What’s my point? It’s not that the case for health care reform is bunk or that policymakers should make their decisions based on polls. Like many progressives, I think the House should pass the Senate bill and that they should fix it later. (Unlike most progressives, my “fixes” would involve moving in the direction of Wyden-Bennett or even a more generous version of the House Republican bill rather than in the direction of House Democrats.) It’s not that liberal advocates should not spin issues in ways that promote their policy preferences. It’s that they should not believe their own spin — the country remains moderate. But don’t take it from me — take it from the 2010 electorate in November.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of the Progressive Policy Institute.