[digg-reddit-me]Last week, Matt Yglesias explained how the relationship between Congress, the media, and the public doesn’t often lead to positive policy results. His these is that a policy idea do not become popular and then receive bipartisan support and those presidents who support such ideas then succeed; instead, the observing affects the observed: if an idea is promoted by the president at the head of one party and is supported by at least some of his opposition party then the media conveys this in such a way that the idea becomes popular; if instead his opponents remain solidly opposed, the idea is seen as overreach. It was this insight that allowed Bill Clinton to bounce back after his defeat on health care in 1993/1994. The plan was solid enough – but failed, among other reasons, because the Republicans solidly opposed it and were able to peel off a few Democrats. The public thus assumed that the health care plan was a bad thing, that it was a result of Clinton’s liberal overreach. Clinton, to his credit learned from this defeat and subsequently exploited this dynamic by consistently peeling off a few Republicans for the rest of his initiatives – or sometimes siding with them more substantially – and thus accomplished things as he needed to in order to save his presidency. The problem is that Clinton’s approach often hurt the Democratic party – and resulted in many small initiatives at a time when there were festering problems that needed to be dealt with.
Obama has tried to be the un-Clinton on this and other issues. Clinton was often seen to be insincere in reaching out to the Republicans – but he helped the class of 1994 pass a significant part of their agenda. Obama has taken pains to appear sincere, but has been more interested in ideas of his own – including incorporating Republican ideas into his proposals. While Bill Clinton had started out happy with partisan victories, but then gradually came to see how the above dynamic could be used to protect himself, and became a proponent of bipartisanship, Obama started out trying to reach out to Republicans, but has become disillusioned with bipartisanship as he saw how the necessity of it gave inordinate power to a few Republicans to derail his agenda.
Democrats simply have to accept that health care reform is going to be polling badly when they vote on it. There’s no mechanism in the current media configuration that would allow them to convey the details of the plan in a positive way without getting overrun by negative process stories. It’s just not possible. What they have to focus on is which alternative is likely to make them better off: reform passing or reform failing. It’s an easy call, which is why I think reform will pass.
But it’s a bit depressing that the actual merit of a policy has little to nothing to do with whether or not it will pass. I agree with Chait that health care reform will pass – and it will be substantial – because the Democrats know they must just take that leap of faith and trust the president (or whoever the architect of this health care bill ends up being). It’s an easy choice between whether each representative wants to survive together, or hang separately.
[Image by ClickFlashPhotos licensed under Creative Commons.]