How Support for Health Care Spoiled So Badly

Why did popular support for health care reform plunge?

Well, it didn't. If you look at the Pollster moving average of health care support and opposition, the story isn't falling approval, but rising dissent.

As you can see below support for health care reform slips a bit, but it mostly hovers around the mid-40s. The real action here is the red line: Opposition spiked last summer and has steadily inched up to 50 percent.

But this still requires some explanation. To be sure, Medicare cuts and tax increases to offset the subsidies were never going to be an easy sell, but judged individually, many elements of the health care plan have polled well. Clive Crook offers his thoughts:

I think opposition is driven less by specific concerns of this sort and more by general disgust and exhaustion. As this saga has dragged on and on, it is incredible to me that nobody has tried to explain and justify any specific reform to the general public. The process has been unfathomable, and entirely inward-looking. People see that a major complex change in the works. This promises to transform services that most of them (remember) are satisfied with, so they have something to lose. But nobody is in charge. Nobody is even talking to voters about it, except to pat them on the head now and then and say "trust us". I'm surprised that the majority opposed to reform is not bigger.

That's a good observation. It's only natural to associate time spent on a project with complexity and change. (To really dumb things down for a bit: if your plumber goes into your bathroom, shouts curses and clangs metal for three hours only to come out saying, "Just made a few tweaks!" you will be rightfully suspicious of his visit.) Congress has spent half a year building a near-trillion-dollar bill, and every few months, Obama comes out to tell Americans, "For the vast majority of you, this changes nothing." It does have that alright now, move along, nothing to see here, please disperse kind of false-seeming calmness.

This reminds me of Ezra Klein's recent statement that while he first considered Sen. Max Baucus' interminable Gang of Six experiment a useful cover to show conservative Democrats that there was no compromise to be had with Republicans, he now partly blames the Gang for wasting three months. I think the Pollster map supports the theory. Between June and September, there was no Senate bill to like or dislike, and yet the opposition achieved plurality.

It's difficult to draw any large lessons from the health care boondoggle, but one good one might be that big reform bills are more like milk than wine. Some things by nature do not get better with time.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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