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Poll Tax

Why politicians don’t always know what’s good for them.

Last week, I left the Obama administration to join the Center for American Progress. Policy—constructing it, selling it—has been my career, as an advisor for the president and Hillary Clinton. The New Republic has asked me to use this experience to help illuminate the glorious (and occasionally unattractive) process of policymaking, how wonks and politicians think about the hard work of governing. Herewith, my first installment.

What can defeat health care reform? Polls—or more specifically, Democratic politicians misreading them. Most of the data that crosses their desks these days resembles the numbers from the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, which shows the public evenly divided on reform—43 percent in favor, 43 percent opposed. (And that was one of the more favorable ones!) Numbers likes these have members of congress worrying about their own election prospects and desperately hoping the issue goes away. And, of course, on the surface, this assessment is rational.

In my time in Washington, I’ve watched congressmen, senators and their advisors allow similarly stark polling data to shape their calculus on countless occasions. But the problem is polls can be amongst the worst basis for a politician to make a good decision about their self-interest. Often, they can suggest a course of action that is blinkered or worse, self-destructive. And that’s exactly the case with health care reform.

There’s no denying that health care is a tad unpopular. But what does this suggest? Many Democrats are making the relatively crude calculation that if they drop this seemingly unpopular issue, their own popularity will rise. They think of health care as an anchor, and the minute they cut it loose they’ll sail for better electoral waters.

Well, the problem with this analysis is that issues don’t operate in a vacuum. Elections are based on competing arguments. Of course, issues are integral to those arguments—the very building blocks of them. But very few individual issues make or break a nationalized election. So in 1992 Bill Clinton had a series of policies—a middle class tax cut, help for college—that “Put People First.” They were meant to convey his support for the middle class, in contrast to Republicans who were about supporting the powerful. It was the entire cocktail of policies that proved so politically effective.

And of course issues can help drive a negative narrative too. In the fall of 2000, Al Gore called for government to tap the Strategic Petroleum Oil Reserve. On paper, this was a good move. Gas prices were rising precipitously. It seemed like a political no-brainer. Unfortunately, Gore had denounced the idea of utilizing these reserves several months earlier. He had made that case in a totally different context. But it didn’t matter. His opponent, George W. Bush, accused him of hypocrisy, pushing a bad policy for political gain. Gore’s internal polls, I was told at the time, showed him falling a disastrous five points in the wake of this move. 

Right now Democrats need to stop worrying about health care polling and to start worrying about their narrative. If Democrats do not deliver on health care reform, a reasonable voter could make the following assessment: Democrats spent the last year discussing a particular problem and put forth a solution. And with 59 seats in the Senate and 254 in the House, they failed to do anything about this problem that they argued was a catastrophe for the American people. And if they are not able to solve that problem with huge majorities, why should they be trusted to govern past November, when their majorities are likely to shrink? And what exactly will they deliver?

Incompetence is a pretty strong attack. Democrats should be well aware of that fact. They bludgeoned George Bush for his botched response to Katrina and bungled efforts in Iraq with devastating effects.

I know that lots of Democrats are in cold hard sweats right now. It is true that they face very difficult terrain. But health care is not some issue that Democrats randomly adopted. This has been a 50-year fight for the party. The Republicans have our backs against the wall. But in reality, momentum builds in politics. If individual members think that they can survive Republican attacks by simply running away, they should recognize that it’s also possible that running away could dramatically worsen their predicament. Nothing will strike voters as more pathetic than doing nothing. And rarely in politics are pathetic politicians rewarded.

Sometimes, the only way out is through.

Neera Tanden is the Chief Operating Officer of the Center for American Progress. She served in the Obama and Clinton administrations.