The Democrats are toast! That’s the Republican prediction if Congress passes President Obama’s health care legislation in the face of hostile polls. Sunday on Face the Nation, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., warned that by “thumbing your nose at the American people,” Democrats would trigger “a political wipeout” in November. Two veteran Democratic pollsters, Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen, agree. “The issue, in voters’ minds, has become less about health care than about the government and a political majority that will neither hear nor heed the will of the people,” they wrote in Friday’s Washington Post. “Democrats are pursuing policies that are out of step with the way ordinary Americans think and feel about politics and government. Barring some change of approach, they will be punished severely at the polls.”
The purpose of these warnings is to kill the bill. Republicans, having lost the last election, are conjuring the prospect of the next one. Democratic politicos such as Caddell and Schoen, likewise thinking ahead to November, are trying to minimize their party’s risk. Their advice is bad, but their pretense of speaking for “the will of the people” is worse. Democracy isn’t about doing what might sell in the next election. It’s about doing what you promised in the last one. If you’re in Congress, and if you think this bill is good for the country, vote for it. Even if it costs you your job.
Losing your job is a scary idea. It’s natural to look for a way out. It’s also natural to rationalize your self-preservation. You aren’t really caving; you’re just serving the public by heeding the polls. Isn’t that a legislator’s job?
No. It isn’t. Your job description is in the nation’s founding documents. The Constitution specifies representative democracy, not direct democracy. The Declaration of Independence explains that to secure citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The consent authorizes powers, not bills. And it precedes the exercise of those powers. Your job now is to use your powers wisely.
Caddell and Schoen want to turn your job into theirs. From the standpoint of a campaign strategist, everything you do in Congress should aim at re-election. That’s one reason why our government has become dysfunctional: Lawmakers spend less time completing the work they were assigned in the last election and more time preparing for the next one. They inflame or placate the public when they should be serving it. Elections were supposed to be a means to good legislation. Instead, legislation has become a means to election. The polling mentality has turned democracy upside down.
Several years ago, when both parties were using Congress to embarrass one another with fake wedge issues like flag burning, I called this charade “wedgislation.” The situation today is different. The underlying sickness is the same: politicization of the legislative process. But rather than invent fake side issues, lawmakers are now being advised to duck or hedge on a huge real issue: health care. This isn’t wedgislation. It’s hedgislation.
To hide the cowardice of this idea, its promoters dress it up as democracy. Polls, they argue, are more current than elections. But the same can be said for your fantasies about George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson: They’re more current than your wedding vows. That doesn’t make them a truer expression of your will. How much thought does the average voter put into answering a poll? Compare that with the thought she puts into listening and choosing during an election.
That’s why polls are so unreliable from week to week—and why Republicans are trying to hide the fluctuation. “Voter attitudes have hardened,” says Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Alexander asserts that “through consistent public opinion surveys, Americans have said, ‘Don’t pass this bill.’ ” Caddell and Schoen agree: “A solid majority of Americans opposes the massive health-reform plan.”
Hardened? Consistent? Solid? You must be joking. Look at the Rasmussen survey cited by Caddell and Schoen. Nine months ago, it showed likely voters supporting the Democratic health care plan by a five-point margin. Then they opposed it by an 11-point margin. Then they favored it again by five points. Then they opposed it by 15 points. Then they were split. Then they opposed it by 19 points. Now the margin is back down to 11. Who knows where will it be next week?
Why do polls go up and down? One reason is framing. One month you’re worried about death panels; the next, you’re freaking out over a wave of premium hikes. Caddell and Schoen completely miss this. “The bottom line is that the American public is overwhelmingly against this bill in its totality even if they like some of its parts,” they write. But that isn’t a bottom line. It’s a description of ambivalence.
Think about ambivalence in your own life: You like your date’s eyes but not his manners. You like your salary but not your hours. You want health insurance but not taxes. Your decisions—breaking up, leaving your job, re-electing your congressman—will depend on which factor dominates your thinking. And that battle for dominance, in the case of health care, will play out through months of campaigning.
Caddell and Schoen also overlook our ambivalence about government. “The country is moving away from big government, with distrust growing more generally toward the role of government in our lives,” they write. But there’s nothing inexorable about this trend. It’s just the latest swing of the pendulum. Look at polls over the last several decades. In CBS/New York Times surveys, the percentage of respondents who trust government only “some of the time” or “never” has gone from 63 (under Ford) to 55 (under Reagan), back up to 66 (under Clinton), down to 44 (under Bush), back up to 83 (still under Bush), down to 75 (under Obama), and now back up to 81. Or check out this chart from Gallup (second from the bottom), which tracks, over the last 13 years, the percentage of Americans who trust public officials. It looks like the Alps.
Maybe passing the health care bill will bring on a Republican tsunami. Maybe it will create a generation of Democrats who revere Obama the way their great-grandparents revered FDR. Maybe you’ll be back in Congress next year. Maybe you won’t. Either way, this is too big a vote to cast on the basis of politics. Every so often, a bill comes along that’s bigger than anything your predecessor got to touch. You’re the lucky bastard who had your seat in 2010, when that bill reached the floor. And here you are, worrying about your career, when the purpose of your career is staring you in the face.