The political fallout from the treaty relinquishing control of the Panama Canal (pictured) may hold lessons for Democrats in the wake of health overhaul.
What does a 49-mile-long waterway have in common with a 2,400 page piece of legislation?
According to Democratic pollster Peter Hart, a whole lot.
Hart, who has conducted the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll with Bill McInturff for the past 20 years, says that the new federal health law may give Democratic candidates a bad case of the Panama Canal Treaty blues.
When President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1977 to turn over future control of the canal to the Panamanians, Democrats considered it a landmark diplomatic achievement. Three previous presidents, both Democratic and Republican, had tried and failed to get such a measure approved.
"And yet in both the 1978 and 1980 elections, the Republicans were able to take advantage of it and make people fearful and uncertain," Hart explains in an interview with Kaiser Health News. Ultimately, "more incumbents were defeated on their Panama Canal vote than were elected… you would have thought this was the end of the modern world as we knew it."
But by 1999, when the Canal was handed over to Panama, it was pretty much a non-issue. "You couldn't get 10 people in America to mention it now," says Hart.
Hart expects the health law to have a similar trajectory. As Democrats and President Obama rally to defend the law and tout new provisions that went into effect this week, Republican candidates continue to slam the legislation and call for its repeal.
Sarah Palin even launched a new campaign targeting 20 House Democrats who voted "yes" on the bill. But sometime in the next six years, Hart is confident that the bill is "going to be accepted and it's going to become popular."
Meanwhile, some Democrats are getting the message loud and clear. At least five of the 34 Democrats in the House who voted against the bill are touting their "no" vote in campaign ads.
Hart says Democrats who supported the bill should take notice in their own campaigns: "I would opt for avoiding the subject rather than wading into" it, he would advise. "I think the biggest difficulty here is not the question of what's in the bill, it's the perception of what people think this bill would do."