The GOP's Foolish Optimism on Health Care.

As folks are noting, congressional Republicans are now engaging in a round of what we on the Interwebs call "concern trolling" on the health-care issue -- offering friendly "advice" to their opponents, counseling them to do the opposite of what they actually ought to do. In this case, Republicans are telling Democrats that if they pass health-care reform, it'll be really bad for them in the November elections.

Obviously, Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell don't have Democrats' best interests at heart, and are at least in part trying to spook them into hesitation. No one who knows anything about politics could actually be dumb enough to believe that at this point, it would be better for Democrats to walk away from health-care reform than to pass a bill and gain the legislative victory. Nevertheless, I think that Republicans do feel that even though losing on health care would be disastrous for Democrats, passing the bill will also be bad for Democrats. They may think they can make some small bit of hay on their complaints about process, but mostly they think that once the program is enacted, everyone will hate it just like they do.

There is a real difference between the two parties on this, and it's not that the Republicans have "the courage of their convictions" while the Democrats don't. The difference is that Republicans always seem sure that the public is with them on whatever the question of the day happens to be, or if the public isn't yet with them, they will be in due time. At times this leads to spectacular overreach, with the Terri Schiavo case being perhaps the most notable example. They are always confident of victory, because they know in their hearts that no matter what the polls say or what history says, Americans will always come around to the conservative position.

That they're frequently wrong about this only sometimes diminishes the sentiment's political utility. It makes them look like they do in fact have the courage of their convictions, while Democrats don't, and the perception that you're principled and courageous is a valuable commodity in politics. Unfortunately, lots and lots of Democrats also believe that the public is inherently conservative. Never mind that on the vast majority of political questions, not to mention the general direction of social beliefs, the public is far more likely to agree with Democrats than they are with Republicans. Because those Democrats can't quite wrap their heads around the idea that their agenda is actually quite popular, they always look apologetic and weak. Democrats are only optimistic about an approaching election when it's completely obvious they're going to romp to victory (e.g. 2008), while Republicans are almost always optimistic about their chances.

So the Democrats need to buck up and remember two things. First, achieving health-care reform after all this agonizing and arguing will be a huge political victory, and the media will rightly portray it as such, making you look like you can actually accomplish something when given the chance. Second, when the reform is enacted, chances are that the public is going to be quite happy with it, just as they're happy with Medicare and S-CHIP, two other health-care programs that were enacted over the strident objections of Republicans. They're going to like the insurance reforms, they're going to like the exchanges, and they're going to be pleased about the subsidies for buying insurance, among other things. I'm sure Republicans actually believe that if reform passes, the public will rise up and revolt against it. But they're wrong.

-- Paul Waldman

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