I find it strange," said Barack Obama on Thursday as he announced that the total of Americans getting private insurance through the exchanges has now exceeded 8 million, "that the Republican position on this law is still stuck in the same place that it has always been. They still can't bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working."
But it really isn't so strange. The Republicans' continued refusal to grant that anything good could possibly come from a law they've fought so bitterly for five years, even as encouraging news continues to roll in, is quite understandable. What's more, it's perfectly rational, even when all the predictions they made about its inevitable self-destruction fail to come true.
Therein lies one of the paradoxes of our politics: At times, the most rational politician is the one who appears to be acting like a fool.
Let's say that you're a Republican running for Senate. Perhaps you're whichever congressman will out-crazy his primary opponents to get the GOP nomination in Georgia, or you're Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, in a fight to hold his Kentucky seat. What would you get from acknowledging that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) isn't turning out too badly after all? That would mean that everything you've been saying for years—every apocalyptic prediction, every moral condemnation, every fist-shaking denunciation of creeping socialist tyranny—has been wrong. It would also mean saying something nice about Barack Obama, who is still deeply unpopular in your state, and more important, among the voters you need in November. In fact, you can win this election without the vote of a single citizen who feels warmly toward Obama, so why say anything favorable about him or his policies at all?
And it isn't as though those citizens are particularly aware of what's going right about the ACA. They heard about the disastrous debut of healthcare.gov, that's for sure. But since then? The news has flown right past most of them. Every bad thing they can see, from the premium increase they get every year to their next sprained ankle, will get blamed on the president, while Obama won't get credit for anything that turns out right. As it happens, McConnell's Kentucky has one of the most efficient and successful state health-care exchanges, called Kynect. But the people who run it would sooner curse their own mothers from the floor Rupp Arena than utter the word "Obamacare" (quite rationally). There may be no single statement that sums up the whole evolution of this law better than that of the man quoted in a Huffington Post article from last August, who looked over information about Kynect at a booth at the state fair and, visibly impressed, said, "This beats Obamacare I hope."
This gentleman's confusion—and there are millions more like him—is just fine with the senior senator who represents him. If the ACA isn't going to fail utterly, the next best thing is for no one to know it's succeeding. There might be a cost to denying that success if most voters understood it, but as long as they remain unaware, the rational thing for McConnell to do is keep saying everything is going horribly. Eventually, certain facts about the ACA will penetrate even to Republican voters in the Bluegrass State. At that point, it would be a mistake to deny those facts, because then you'd look like you were insanely determined to keep fighting a war you'd already lost. But for the moment, the rational Republican candidate will keep saying that Obamacare is a disaster that must be repealed, and we'll get that taken care of as long as you vote me back to Washington
The rational politician is one who knows how to maneuver around—and exploit—his constituents' irrationality. At times though, that irrationality can enslave the politician to positions that are bad for his party, even as they make perfect sense to him at a particular moment. For instance, the Republican party needs to pass immigration reform to show Hispanic voters it isn't hostile to them, particularly in the face of a growing Hispanic population. But if you're a Republican congressman in a conservative, majority-white district, what's good for the national party would be deeply irrational for you. So you condemn illegal aliens and pledge to fight against comprehensive reform, then get safely reelected, along with a couple hundred of your colleagues who do the same thing. And the reform that your party needs never comes to pass. In other words, politicians can only be as rational as their constituents allow.
In the 1990s, in the face of decades of research showing American citizens to be alarmingly uninformed about the policy matters their representatives were called upon to decide, some political scientists attempted to redeem the public by looking at the picture from different angles. Samuel Popkin wrote a book in 1991 called The Reasoning Voter, in which he contended that making decisions on simple heuristics (or cognitive shortcuts) makes much more sense than spending a lot of time poring over position papers. "Low-information rationality," Popkin argued, is still rationality. He opened the book with a story about Gerald Ford getting handed a tamale and biting into it without removing the corn husk, supposedly telling Hispanic voters more than enough about his understanding of their concerns. In 1992, Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro wrote a book called The Rational Public, which looked over decades of poll results to argue that however ignorant or confused individual voters may be, in the aggregate, the public has stable beliefs and makes reasonable decisions.
These scholars weren't wrong to look at the glass of public ignorance as half full. There are ways in which the public as a whole is rational—at the right times, and considered in the right way. But it's also undeniable that in the short term, they're often uninformed, capricious, and easily misled. Smart politicians understand that and adjust accordingly. So the next time you see a Republican candidate saying that Obamacare is well on its way to implosion and will destroy America along the way, remember that regardless of the facts, he isn't acting foolishly. He may be denying reality, he may be appealing to his constituents' worst instincts, and he may be making them dumber along the way. But he's doing the rational thing.