November 15, 2013

No question about it: Total failure of the Affordable Care Act would be a major disaster for liberals. Universal health care has been the top policy goal for decades; if the ACA fails, it will be at least another generation, and most likely more, before Democratic politicians are willing to try again.

Also…well, actually, there’s not much of an “also.” The ACA’s failure might hurt Democrats in the 2014 midterms and the 2016 elections, but maybe not. Republicans piled one failure after another during George W. Bush’s second term and won a major landslide in 2010. The Jimmy Carter years were brutal for Democrats, but they won big in 1982. Watergate was supposed to destroy Republicans for a generation, but they almost won the White House in 1976. To put it another way: The Reagan recession was a major disaster, but Reagan won big in 1984.

But then there’s another theory put forth today by Ron Brownstein:

President Obama’s health care law is now compounding a political problem it was meant to solve: the generation-long loss of faith in government activism, particularly among the white middle class.

For decades, Democratic strategists have viewed universal health care as their best opportunity to reverse the doubt among many voters, especially whites, that government programs can tangibly benefit their families. Now the catastrophic rollout of the health law threatens instead to reinforce those doubts. That outcome could threaten Democratic priorities for years.

For better or worse, there’s little evidence that public opinion works that way. The best way to convince people of the need for government activism isn’t by enacting programs that work and become popular. If that was the case, liberal successes such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act would have produced a surge of liberal voters by the late 1970s.

In fact, it’s almost the opposite. While public opinion is mostly stable over time on big-idea questions about ideology, to the extent that there is change it’s pretty simple: Public opinion moves in the opposite direction from incumbents.

So these Democratic strategists Brownstein cites have it pretty much backward. The best thing that Democrats could do to make public opinion move sharply in a liberal direction would be helping Republicans win lots and lots of elections. It worked during Ronald Reagan’s relatively successful presidency, and it worked during George W. Bush’s disastrous one.

On the other hand, the relationship between “faith in government activism” and support for particular programs is iffy at best. The best way to ensure support of a particular program is to enact it successfully. Then it ceases to be part of the debate over activism and becomes instead part of the status quo. And as we’re seeing this month with panic over people losing lousy health insurance, the status quo always has allies in U.S. politics, no matter how bad it seems in the abstract. Moreover, as we’re also seeing this month and will likely see for a long time, it doesn’t take all that long for something new to become the status quo and benefit from how difficult it is to enact change in the U.S. Madisonian system.

This isn’t to minimize the importance of getting the ACA working. But it’s mostly important because it matters substantively for health case and for the economy, and perhaps secondarily for the next couple rounds of elections. That’s a lot, but that’s about all.