I've always been fascinated by declarations of "long-lasting" political trends, many of which last about as long as it takes to make the declaration in the first place.
About a year ago, we were told, President Obama and the Democrats were on a roll, and Republicans were about to spend a long, long winter on the outskirts of power: leaderless, rudderless, defined (and dismissed) as the party of Limbaugh, Cheney & Gingrich.
That long banishment to Siberia ended only after a couple of months, as conservatives and Tea Party advocates rose up against what they saw as big government, such as the bailouts and the health care proposals.
Then came Scott Brown's victory last January in Massachusetts, a Senate seat that been held by the late Ted Kennedy for nearly 47 years. That followed predictions that health care was dead and Republicans were going to sweep the fall midterm elections. No Democrat was safe, we were told. It was going to be a bloodbath.
Now that conclusion may be in some doubt. While polls prior to Sunday's vote showed a plurality of Americans opposed to the health care bill, there seems to be a shift in opinion. A new USA Today/Gallup Poll indicates that more Americans — 49 percent — favor the bill that passed the House, with 40 percent opposed. About half of those responding say they are "enthusiastic" or "pleased" with the result, while about four in 10 were "disappointed" or "angry."
The Obama administration, of course, was eager to note the apparent movement of opinion. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said, "The political tides shifted with passage of the bill. It's easy to demonize something large and complex in theory; harder when it becomes law."
But Politics Daily's Bruce Drake notes that while the poll shows the bill's passage has the support of a plurality, "only 15 percent described themselves as enthusiastic about it."
And that's why no one really knows what Sunday's vote portends for November. Indeed, as Walter Shapiro writes in Politics Daily, "The truth is that we do not yet know what issues Americans will be obsessed with as they go to the polls":
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." ...
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.
Still, there have been some indications of a backlash to the tactics of the bill's opponents. The spitting and racial and homophobic epithets from protestors aimed at Democratic House members on the day of the vote have been widely reported, as was the shout of "baby killer" by Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) while Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) was on the House floor Sunday night announcing he would drop his opposition to the bill over abortion. Not the kind of tactics that are likely to attract the moderates who had been leaning Republican prior to this week.
Republicans still insist that Democrats who voted for the bill will pay a price in November. Sarah Palin, on her Facebook page, lists 20 Democratic-held House seats she's targeting for defeat. Maybe yes, maybe no. As we learned during the Democratic good times of March 2009 and the Republican good times of January 2010, these so-called "trends" can end before they take off. And even if there is a move of public opinion towards health care now, that may not be the case when voters go to the polls this fall.