Your vote on health care is more important than your re-election.
The Democrats are toast! That's the Republican prediction if Congress passes President Obama's health care legislation in the face of hostile polls. Sunday on Face the Nation, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., warned that by "thumbing your nose at the American people," Democrats would trigger "a political wipeout" in November. Two veteran Democratic pollsters, Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen, agree. "The issue, in voters' minds, has become less about health care than about the government and a political majority that will neither hear nor heed the will of the people," they wrote in Friday's Washington Post. "Democrats are pursuing policies that are out of step with the way ordinary Americans think and feel about politics and government. Barring some change of approach, they will be punished severely at the polls."
The purpose of these warnings is to kill the bill. Republicans, having lost the last election, are conjuring the prospect of the next one. Democratic politicos such as Caddell and Schoen, likewise thinking ahead to November, are trying to minimize their party's risk. Their advice is bad, but their pretense of speaking for "the will of the people" is worse. Democracy isn't about doing what might sell in the next election. It's about doing what you promised in the last one. If you're in Congress, and if you think this bill is good for the country, vote for it. Even if it costs you your job.
Losing your job is a scary idea. It's natural to look for a way out. It's also natural to rationalize your self-preservation. You aren't really caving; you're just serving the public by heeding the polls. Isn't that a legislator's job?
No. It isn't. Your job description is in the nation's founding documents. The Constitution specifies representative democracy, not direct democracy. The Declaration of Independence explains that to secure citizens' rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The consent authorizes powers, not bills. And it precedes the exercise of those powers. Your job now is to use your powers wisely.
Caddell and Schoen want to turn your job into theirs. From the standpoint of a campaign strategist, everything you do in Congress should aim at re-election. That's one reason why our government has become dysfunctional: Lawmakers spend less time completing the work they were assigned in the last election and more time preparing for the next one. They inflame or placate the public when they should be serving it. Elections were supposed to be a means to good legislation. Instead, legislation has become a means to election. The polling mentality has turned democracy upside down.
Several years ago, when both parties were using Congress to embarrass one another with fake wedge issues like flag burning, I called this charade "wedgislation." The situation today is different. The underlying sickness is the same: politicization of the legislative process. But rather than invent fake side issues, lawmakers are now being advised to duck or hedge on a huge real issue: health care. This isn't wedgislation. It's hedgislation.
To hide the cowardice of this idea, its promoters dress it up as democracy. Polls, they argue, are more current than elections. But the same can be said for your fantasies about George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson: They're more current than your wedding vows. That doesn't make them a truer expression of your will. How much thought does the average voter put into answering a poll? Compare that with the thought she puts into listening and choosing during an election.
That's why polls are so unreliable from week to week—and why Republicans are trying to hide the fluctuation. "Voter attitudes have hardened," says Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Alexander asserts that "through consistent public opinion surveys, Americans have said, 'Don't pass this bill.' " Caddell and Schoen agree: "A solid majority of Americans opposes the massive health-reform plan."
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.