Public Opinion Option

by digby

David Gergen thinks the final health care bill may not pass --- because of the precipitous drop in public opinion:

GERGEN: [Y]ou look at the polls almost everywhere. The last three or four weeks there's been a pretty sharp drop off in support for the health care bill and an increase in disapproval. People ask why Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the Democrat has been such a staunch hold out against this, not only for abortion.

But if you look at the poll back in Nebraska, a recent poll there found that 67 percent of Nebraskans oppose this health care reform and it is the number one issue in their minds. Even if they get this through the Senate, I have been feeling all along they would get it through the Senate. I'm having questions whether it will ultimately pass next year, if the public sentiment continues to be so strongly against this, it's going to be very, very hard to get skittish Senators and members of the House to vote for it in the final analysis.

ROMANS: David, why is it do you think that the port is waning? Do you think it is because people are watching all of these deals being cut and they are saying, wait this is starting to feel a little bit like politics as usual on a very big scale, or is it that maybe liberals are saying, wait. This isn't what we signed on for in the very early going or conservatives who don't - I mean, why is a port waning?

GERGAN: Well, as you know there is this old axiom that there are two things in the world you never want to see being made. One is sausage and the other is legislation, and the process here I think has been one that has really dismayed a growing number's people. They don't understand what's in the bill anymore. It just seems to be very messy, it's not clean. Because the White House didn't have a bill of its own and there wasn't a strong central argument to begin with, the people who were for this and are passionately for it frankly are losing the message war, and Americans are saying, we've had for the first time a poll that says, a national poll that says, there are more people that think we should do nothing than pass this bill. That's almost shocking considering where we started.

It is shocking. And some of that is out of the control of the White House or the congress. But there are reasons for the drop in public opinion that are directly related to the Democrats' bad political strategy.

It's fairly obvious that the administration and the Democrats always saw the public option as a negotiating chip and fully expected to throw it in at the end. There's a reason why Obama hedged on it for the last six months. In fact,it seems likely to me that Reid put it back on life support just so they could ritually sacrifice it. (He knew he didn't have 60 and needed something to "compromise" with.)

So, they knew going in that they were going to use the old "if liberals hate it it must be good" marketing ploy, both to get the Senate princes on board as well as sell it to Real American Independents (the new "values voters.") What they didn't expect was that the wider public would actually like the damned thing, which made that play a lot more risky. And if public opinion doesn't come back up pretty quickly now, that's a risk that may not have paid off.

A lot more people are unhappy than otherwise would have been --- the standard liberals, the populist independents and the "hope and change" new voters. That group may overlap some, but I think they are actually distinct. The liberals know that government is a cesspool but believed the public option (and later, the medicare buy-in) gave them an avenue for future change and saw it as a demonstration of progressive power in Obama's Washington. The independents thought that Obama's promises to keep lobbyists out of the White House and operate with transparency and accountability meant that he was going to upend the dominance of special interests. The final group thought that by the sheer force of his personality and talent for persuasion the fighting would stop and everyone would sit down at the table and work together. And I would imagine that all of them counted on him using his public popularity, good relationship with the press and superior rhetorical gifts to push for his agenda.

Instead we have seen teabaggers packing heat at town hall meetings, Democrats arguing with each other on cable news 24/7, the public option used as a bargaining chip, secret deals cut with the medical industry and Obama making his last speech on the subject three months ago. It has not just been an ugly spectacle, it has soured a lot of people on the promise that Obama brought to Washington. His own ratings are tanking right along with healthcare reform.

Obviously he can't be responsible for the Republicans or the teabaggers. They were always going to do what they did and it was inevitable that there would be some disappointment that Obama's magical powers to make everyone get along did not materialize. And Lord knows that Lieberman and Nelson and the rest of the Senate egomaniacs were going to make it tough (although that's where strong public support really really helps.) But he and the Dems could have mitigated the rest of it by not planning a strategy based around disappointing the base and cutting deals with industry. It still would have been ugly, but I suspect that if the president and the Democrats had crafted a solid message and he had personally worked harder at keeping public opinion on board they would have had an easier time of it.

And I'm not sure that Gergen is wrong about the precariousness of this bill. It's still possible that the bill could fail on the vote for final passage for a variety of reasons, the most likely being because Ben or Joe or one of the other Senate Pashas wakes up that morning and declares he owes his allegiance to the majority of Americans who are no longer in favor of passing this bill. I'm not sure what in the hell anyone could do about that.

One thing I am sure of is that they'll find a way to blame the liberals for the failure.