The Difference Between the Present and the Future.

Today's Washington Post features a piece by two Democratic pollsters, Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen, advising Democrats to jettison health-care reform, because "the battle for public opinion has been lost. Comprehensive health care has been lost. If it fails, as appears possible, Democrats will face the brunt of the electorate's reaction. If it passes, however, Democrats will face a far greater calamitous reaction at the polls."

Caddell and Schoen have each spent much of their time in recent years occupying a Lieberman-esque niche in our discourse, that of the person who is brought on TV or into the newspaper to criticize his party and its goals in terms that sound identical to those used by the other party -- all while still claiming that he is not switching to the other side but is offering this advice only out of love (read more here). Let's take Caddell: Though as far as I know he hasn't done any actual polling in a decade or two, producers and editors believe that because he once worked for Jimmy Carter, it's much more interesting to hear him make an argument like this than to hear it coming from Mitch McConnell or John Boehner, who say exactly the same thing:

For Democrats to begin turning around their political fortunes there has to be a frank acknowledgement that the comprehensive health-care initiative is a failure, regardless of whether it passes. There are enough Republican and Democratic proposals -- such as purchasing insurance across state lines, malpractice reform, incrementally increasing coverage, initiatives to hold down costs, covering preexisting conditions and ensuring portability -- that can win bipartisan support.

Those are actually Republican proposals, not "Republican and Democratic proposals," but never mind. Let's accept that Caddell and Schoen are arguing in good faith. Their problem is one that afflicts many (though not all) pollsters and political consultants: the inability to understand that policies and rhetoric have different effects on the public. There's a reason why Republicans have success when they try to do things like scare people about "death panels," but far less success when they try to do things like cut Medicare or privatize Social Security. Those are programs -- actual existing programs with which people interact. People come to a very different understanding of programs once they're implemented than they had when the program was a confusing hypothetical future. That's what will happen with health care. Once it passes, it will be a program, not a proposal, and people will judge it based on their own experience with it.

When your understanding of politics revolves around campaigns, existing policies -- as opposed to potential policies -- tend to be relevant only insofar as they become hypothetical. Should we change this, or drop that? Ask those questions, and you can get into the hypothetical arguments that can be used to frighten or assure people again. It's not that once this bill passes we'll stop debating health care. But the debate will become much smaller than it is now. We won't be arguing about all the terrible things Obamacare might do, because it will already exist. We may argue about how to improve it, but we won't be talking about all the things Republicans have used to make people afraid of it, because all those are fictional stories about the future. You can tell people a hypothetical future might be nightmarish, but you can't tell them their present is worse than they see with their own eyes.

Finally, when Caddell and Schoen write that "the comprehensive health-care initiative is a failure, even if it passes," they turn themselves into a caricature of the cynical political consultant. If reform passes, there will be millions of people who didn't have health insurance but will now get it. There will be millions who get help to afford it. There will be millions who will no longer be abused by insurance companies. Our system will be more humane and less expensive. If you think that's a failure, you need to get your moral compass examined.

-- Paul Waldman

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