Your vote on health care is more important than your re-election.
Hardened? Consistent? Solid? You must be joking. Look at the Rasmussen survey cited by Caddell and Schoen. Nine months ago, it showed likely voters supporting the Democratic health care plan by a five-point margin. Then they opposed it by an 11-point margin. Then they favored it again by five points. Then they opposed it by 15 points. Then they were split. Then they opposed it by 19 points. Now the margin is back down to 11. Who knows where will it be next week?
Why do polls go up and down? One reason is framing. One month you're worried about death panels; the next, you're freaking out over a wave of premium hikes. Caddell and Schoen completely miss this. "The bottom line is that the American public is overwhelmingly against this bill in its totality even if they like some of its parts," they write. But that isn't a bottom line. It's a description of ambivalence.
Think about ambivalence in your own life: You like your date's eyes but not his manners. You like your salary but not your hours. You want health insurance but not taxes. Your decisions—breaking up, leaving your job, re-electing your congressman—will depend on which factor dominates your thinking. And that battle for dominance, in the case of health care, will play out through months of campaigning.
Caddell and Schoen also overlook our ambivalence about government. "The country is moving away from big government, with distrust growing more generally toward the role of government in our lives," they write. But there's nothing inexorable about this trend. It's just the latest swing of the pendulum. Look at polls over the last several decades. In CBS/New York Times surveys, the percentage of respondents who trust government only "some of the time" or "never" has gone from 63 (under Ford) to 55 (under Reagan), back up to 66 (under Clinton), down to 44 (under Bush), back up to 83 (still under Bush), down to 75 (under Obama), and now back up to 81. Or check out this chart from Gallup (second from the bottom), which tracks, over the last 13 years, the percentage of Americans who trust public officials. It looks like the Alps.
Maybe passing the health care bill will bring on a Republican tsunami. Maybe it will create a generation of Democrats who revere Obama the way their great-grandparents revered FDR. Maybe you'll be back in Congress next year. Maybe you won't. Either way, this is too big a vote to cast on the basis of politics. Every so often, a bill comes along that's bigger than anything your predecessor got to touch. You're the lucky bastard who had your seat in 2010, when that bill reached the floor. And here you are, worrying about your career, when the purpose of your career is staring you in the face.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Lamar Alexander by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.