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Want to Know How Health Care Will Play in November? Wait Until October

5 years ago
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It should be enshrined as the Obama Uncertainty Principle.
Making his do-the-right-thing argument last week to wavering Democrats, the president repeatedly stressed the cloudy, crystal ball limitations of self-interested political prophecy. As he put it last Friday at a health care pep rally at George Mason University, "I don't know what's going to happen with the politics on this thing. I don't know whether my poll numbers go down [or] they go up. I don't know what happens in terms of Democrats versus Republicans."
Presidents rarely give such public voice to humility, even if the conceit played to Obama's rhetorical purposes. But even as the first post-passage poll gives Democrats cautious grounds for health care optimism, it is important to resist the temptation to get too far ahead of the story.

For Obama -- whatever his motivations -- was right. Still more than seven months away, the 2010 elections defy overconfident armchair punditry. As for the 2012 campaign, it still shimmers far enough in the future to require exploration by Buck Rogers.

The truth is that we do not yet know what issues Americans will be obsessed with as they go to the polls (or forget to vote) in November. It is conceivable that the health care bill will only become a voting issue when the individual mandates and the major expansion of coverage kick in after the 2012 elections.

Cable TV news and hyperdrive Internet publications like the Politico tend to divine major political implications from everything, with the possible exception of Starbucks introducing a soymilk Frappuccino. The institutional bias that governs this type of political coverage is to overreact to the here and now. The working assumption is that the future will be just like the present except for the addition of a few random fluctuations to enhance the story line.

Health care, to be sure, may be an exception because of the scope of the legislation, the symbolic importance of the issue for liberal Democrats, and the passionate objections to the bill by Republicans. But it is sobering to look back at other game-changing congressional election years (particularly 1994 and 2006) to see how off-kilter the tone of mainstream political coverage was at this point on the calendar.

Four years ago this month, the polls and portents correctly pointed to the Democrats making major gains in the 2006 elections as the George W. Bush presidency lurched into its sixth year. And the national security issue that was going to vault the Democrats into a House majority for the first time in 12 years was ... wait for it ... Dubai ports.

All three cable TV news networks were obsessed with the shocking revelation that the Bush administration had permitted the Dubai government to purchase a British company that managed six American ports. That was it -- the great smoking gun issue of the 21st century. As the normally understated Economist gushed at the time, "For the Democrats, this is a great opportunity." And The Washington Post declared in a breathless piece of political analysis, "Suddenly, the collapse of a port-management deal ... has devastated the White House and raised questions about its ability to lead even fellow Republicans."

Oddly enough, when the Democrats won control of Congress in November 2006 by picking up 32 House seats and knocking off six GOP Senate incumbents, the how-it-all-happened stories were fixated on scandal-ridden Republicans like Mark Foley. After an extensive database search, the only reference to the Dubai ports that I could find in the post-election stories was in a dependent clause in a question that Sean Hannity asked Tom DeLay in a Fox News interview.

Obviously, the Dubai port management flap represented an extreme case, since as a policy issue it had all the richness and flavor of Sanka. But it is worth underlining as an example of how wrong snap judgment political analysis can be seven months before an election. This was not some strange pre-Internet media environment when political reporters filed via Western Union. This was just four years ago.

The same mistakes of emphasis were made in the political coverage during March 1994, on the cusp of the Gingrich Revolution that gave the Republicans control of the House for the first time in four decades. At the time, the conventional wisdom pointed to a major Republican comeback (but not the anointing of Speaker Newt Gingrich) after Bill Clinton stumbled through the worst opening year of a presidency since William Henry Harrison died 30 days after taking office.

There is a strange time warp quality to the first paragraph of the lead story in The New York Times of March 20, 1994: "Facing up to the near-certainty of major losses at every level in this year's midterm elections, Democrats are increasingly looking to passage of a health care bill this fall as their best hope for limiting the damage." This flashback raises the intriguing question of whether the Democrats could have clung to a narrow House majority if the president had been able to salvage some kind of legislation from the wreckage of Hillarycare.

This emblematic 1994 Times story (and I could have just as easily used The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal) then points to the source of this intense political distress: "Democratic candidates for the House, the Senate and governorships are more and more concerned about a spillover from the president's political troubles, particularly the Whitewater investigation." In truth, about the only scandal that did not decimate the Democrats at the polls in 1994 was Bill and Hillary Clinton's failed Arkansas land deal. Once again, a NEXIS search picked up only a few stray references to Whitewater in the post-election wrapup articles.

Even if the theories of causation missed the target, the political analysis in major newspapers in March 1994 and 2006, at least, picked up the mood of an angry electorate suspicious of the party in power. But in March 1986, The Washington Post approvingly quoted an up-and-coming Republican strategist named Lee Atwater, who declared with certainty: "We're in an era of good feelings. What happens in an era of good feelings is that incumbents get re-elected." Not exactly. That November the Democrats won control of the Senate by defeating seven GOP incumbents.

All the stories that I have quoted were written by smart political reporters who were doing their best to see around corners more than seven months before congressional elections. But the task of divining the future is nearly impossible, in part, because most Americans (as opposed to political partisans) are not that fixated on candidates and issues this far in advance of voting. National surveys -- no matter how rigorous the methodology -- are crude instruments when pollsters ask questions that voters had not thought about until the phone rang. And (big revelation ahead) things change in seven months.

None of these caution flags, of course, will halt the rush to judgment about the outcome of the 2010 elections. All that can be hoped is that maybe, just maybe, some of the cocksure certainty of the pundits and partisans will be tempered by a dollop of Obama-style humility.

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