What Guides Public Opinion?

Rereading Amy Sullivan's 2006 piece on then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, I'm struck by her description of how the public came to oppose President Bush's plan to reform Social Security:

Most of the press corps expected the debate to be a painful defeat for Democrats. Not only were moderates predicted to jump ship and join with Republicans to support the president's plan, but Social Security -- one of the foundational blocks of the New Deal social compact -- would be irrevocably changed. But then a funny thing happened. Reid and Pelosi managed to keep the members of their caucuses united in opposition. Day after day they launched coordinated attacks on Bush's "risky" proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisanship veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.

Given the public's extremely limited knowledge on most issues of public policy, I really -- really -- doubt that they came to see private accounts as "another piece of GOP flimflam." More likely is this: The public has broad heuristics for figuring out if something is worth supporting, of which one is the presence of bipartisan agreement among party elites; if members from both parties support a policy, the public is more likely to go along, since it's a sign -- rightly or wrongly -- that this is a reasonable approach. The opposite is true when unanimous opposition enters the picture; if one party refuses to support a proposal, then the public assumes a major problem with the underlying legislation and acts accordingly.

I'm pretty certain that this dynamic, and not an actual policy evaluation, is what drove public opposition to Bush's Social Security reform. What's more, it seems to explain the public's contradictory views on health-care reform. When you break the Affordable Care Act into its separate parts, voters approve by a fairly wide margin. After all, people tend to like new benefits, especially when they promise to make their lives a little cheaper and a little easier. That said, when you begin talking about the bill as a whole (and by name), the public suddenly becomes much more ambivalent.

This makes sense; Republicans were unanimously opposed to health-care reform as an aim of Obama's presidency but weren't so keen on attacking the bill's more popular items. The GOP's alternative for health-care reform -- The Reform Americans Can Afford Act -- promised to "prevent insurers from unjustly canceling a policy," "allow dependents to remain on their parents' policies," and "guarantee access to affordable health care for those with preexisting conditions." The policies are too limited to actually help, but the rhetoric is almost identical to Obama's.

In other words, where an elite consensus existed -- even if it was superficial -- the public was more likely to be supportive. And where it didn't, the public became much more skeptical. Which should be a lesson for House Democrats when they are in the minority; if you want GOP policies to become unpopular, refuse to support them.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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