If He's For It, I'm Against It

Over the past few years, folks like me have pointed out many times that Republicans have, almost as one, changed their minds on the wisdom of a number of important policies, for no apparent reason other than the fact that Barack Obama embraced them. The most notable ones are "cap and trade," which used to be a conservative way to harness the power of markets to address climate change, but then became a sinister government power grab to force everyone to huddle in the cold as the useless solar panels on their roofs provided only enough power to run a tiny hotplate; and the individual health insurance mandate, which used to be a Heritage Foundation-crafted idea to use the power of markets to achieve universal private insurance coverage and avoid single-payer health care, then became the greatest threat to freedom the world has seen since Joseph Stalin was laid to rest.

Yet for all the (deserved) ridicule, there's something almost rational lying underneath these changes in position. While it's true that the individual mandate was born at the Heritage Foundation, it isn't as though more than a few conservatives had particularly strong feelings about it prior to 2009. By now, of course, they've had lots of time to consider it, so they should be able to see clearly what it is and isn't. But as a general matter, the less you've thought about an issue, the more your partisan attachments should function as a heuristic to help you decide what you believe. After all, if you're a conservative, Barack Obama does indeed have different values than you on many matters, and if he is for something, there's at least a fair chance that, if you had all the time and information in the world, you'd decide you're against it.

Which brings me to an interesting poll The Washington Post just released, in which they tested people's opinions on four issues, but randomly assigned respondents to hear a particular position described with and without Barack Obama's name attached to it. The results were pretty striking:

How do we interpret this? Where there's a large movement, one of two things is probably happening. The first is that significant numbers of people haven't thought very much about the issue, or don't have a firm grasp of what it means, and so they're using partisan identification as a guide. The second is that significant numbers are being pulled in two directions, one by their partisan attachments and the other by some other impulse or opinion they have. So on a path to citizenship, chances are high that most Americans don't know much of the details being proposed for how an undocumented immigrant would become a citizen, but they have a general feeling about the idea of undocumented immigrants eventually being granted citizenship. For a significant number of Republicans, once you attach Obama's name to the proposal, you confirm for them that it's a liberal, indulgent policy, and you get that remarkable 21-point shift toward opposition (overall, the policy moves from 70 percent support to 59 percent support with Obama's name on it).

The second-biggest movement comes among Democrats on the assault-weapons ban, and here I'm guessing that you have those conflicting impulses at work. There are plenty of Democratic gun owners who may think that a ban is useless, but if you remind them of their partisan attachment, for at least that moment they'll say that they're with their team.

As for the independents moving from 69 percent support for ending the war in Afghanistan to 84 percent support once Obama's name is mentioned, I don't have much of an explanation. You'd think that in the war's 12th year, people would have a pretty clear idea of what they think about it, so it wouldn't move much one way or the other. The fact that independents move toward Obama's position on both climate change and the assault-weapons ban when his name is mentioned suggests that the people calling themselves independent might be a more Democratic-leaning group (most people who say they're independent actually lean toward one or the other party; the proportion of true independents is around 10 percent). But this could be a statistical quirk; after you've divided the sample into the two experimental groups, and then further into Democrats, Republicans, and independents, you've got only about 300 respondents in each group, so it's possible.

So how should Obama interpret this information? The answer is that there isn't much he can do about it. The Post article suggests, tongue in cheeck I'm assuming, that he shouldn't mention that he supports a path to citizenship in his State of the Union address. But it isn't like we're going to have a big debate about immigration reform in which the President is able to keep his position a secret. That's the thing about being in charge—for better or worse, voters are going to know where you stand, and the more attention an issue gets—in other words, the closer it gets to being resolved with new legislation—the more that's true.

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