How Much Will Health Care Matter in the Fall?

When Wonk Room says that Obama is sending "mixed messages" on health care reform, I take it to mean "faint hope indeed".  So it's worth asking:  how much will this matter in November?

This is not another way of asking "are Democrats better off passing or not passing the bill?"  Rather, what I'm interested in is how much health care will matter compared to other issues, if we assume that the bill doesn't pass?

I'm guessing that it will not matter as much as we now think.  Everything that is imminent and vivid takes on an outsized importance in our minds.  So naturally, we tend to project that forward--to think that voters will still care as much about health care in nine months as they do right now.

Beyond that, I think that wonky types have tended to assign too much weight to health care in the 1994 elections.  When liberal pundits look back, they see the failure of something they'd been trying to pass for decades--one of a handful of the most important items on the progressive agenda.  Similarly, conservatives see that we almost underwent a radical transformation of one of the largest sectors of the economy.  Naturally, both groups tend to think of this as the most important thing that happened--and therefore, assign it the leading role in the Republican Revolution.

But that's not what was necessarily important to the voters, god bless their disinterested little hearts.  In fact, Clinton had passed an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation, the 1993 budget deal, which raised a bunch of taxes and didn't offer many goodies to voters.  Unemployment had taken two long years to fall, and still wasn't back to the levels that prevailed early in Bush's term.    The assault rifle ban was, as Sean Trende has noted, very unpopular in rural areas.

It's not clear to me that health care was paramount in peoples' decisions--arguably, exit polls show they still preferred the Democrats on health care.   Nor am I sure that it will be a key factor this time around.  The economy will probably be the largest factor, followed by the stimulus, the banks, and whatever other issues crop up between then.  I doubt that much of the electorate is going to punish Democrats for either being doofuses who can't get anything done (preferred liberal narrative) or blind autocrats trying to force their government run health care on America (preferred conservative narrative).  They'll be too worried about the economy. That's not really fair, of course; they can't magick the economy back into health.  But Democrats have benefited from such unhappy timing at least as often as they've been its victims.

All bets are off if they pass it, of course; voters do pay attention to laws that actually happened.  But hypothetical laws?  I have my doubts.