Is “the Process” Driving Opinion about Health Care?

by John Sides on February 3, 2010 · 6 comments

in Health Care,Public opinion

Time emphasizes what Americans hate and distrust about the legislative process (which is, put simply, the workings of the legislative process), and that drives them away from the bill.

That’s Ezra Klein, drawing on the book Stealth Democracy, by political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse (buy it here!). Ezra quotes this passage from the book, which nicely summarizes their argument:

…they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.

But there’s one problem in trying to explain opinion about health care with process considerations. What about the extraordinary partisan polarization on health care? See the graph from Gallup below:

galluppartyhealth.JPG

Klein talks about what “Americans” think about the process and the bill. But there are no “Americans” here. There are groups of partisans with strongly divergent views. Clearly, the lengthy process isn’t turning off Democrats. In fact, their support has increased of late, according to Gallup:

galluppartyhealthtime.JPG

Is it turning off Republicans? Perhaps. But a much more plausible explanation is that Republicans either didn’t support health care reform from the outset because it was associated with Obama and the Democratic Party, or came to dislike it after a barrage of criticism from Republican political leaders.

Okay, but what about independents? Are their views on health care due to their revulsion at “the process”? That would strike me as plausible if independents support for the bill kept declining as the process dragged on. In the graph above, there was a decline from the middle of September to the beginning of November. But no decline thereafter, even as the allegedly “worst” parts of the process—the Cornhusker compromise, the backroom conversations among Democratic leaders, etc.—took place. This is a point I’ve made before.

In fact, most of the growth in opposition to health care took place in the early stages of the process, not as the process wore on:

So while it’s true that opposition to health care reform is positively related to the length of the process, that doesn’t imply any causal relationship. The rapid increase in opposition and the partisan polarization in opinion suggests that the lengthy process matters not by opening people’s eyes to the cruel realities of legislating, but by giving opponents of reform additional time to attack it.

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