In the US currently debate about the political impact of health care reform, public opinion is on average mildly hostile, although this partially reflects misinformation and some of the opponents of the current proposals think it does not go far enough. Can it be advantageous for a government to do unpopular things? Joshua Tucker asks:
If the bill is passed, it will not have the support of the majority of the country. At the same time, if healthcare fails, then a significant portion of Obama’s first year(s) in office will have been wasted on a failed major policy agenda and the Democrats will be portrayed as divided, incompetent, etc. Which would you rather take into the midterm elections? The President/Congress that succeeded where Clinton, Truman, etc. had failed in the past by passing healthcare reform – but without the support of a majority of the population – or divided, incompetent, failure? Now I’m not saying that the fate of this bill will significantly impact who controls the House or Senate after the 2010 elections one way or another, but it seems to me that if it did, then not passing your most meaningful domestic policy objective would ultimately be more damaging to your political prospects then passing it with the support of only 40% of the country.
Reminded here of the power privatisation debate in NSW, this was certainly unpopular with voters particularly when proposed by a Labor Party that had earlier campaigned against it. The debate contributed to the overthrow of Maurice Iemma and his replacement by Nathan Rees but Labor’s support plunged further after Iemma’s demise. Following public opinion can be counterproductive if it creates an image of a government incapable of governing. Above and beyond individual policy items governments are judged by their ability to provide public goods that benefit all voters.