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Is Health Care Reform the new Iraq War?

Here’s the New York Times‘ David Brooks in a snappy back-and-forth with Gail Collins yesterday:

Let’s say we had a year-long debate in the run-up to the Iraq war. Let’s say at the end of that debate, 33 percent of Americans thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq, 46 percent thought it was a bad idea and the rest weren’t sure. Then let’s say that there were a bunch of elections in places like New Jersey and Virginia in the middle of this debate and George Bush’s party lost them all badly. Let’s say at the end of this debate there was a senate race in Wyoming in which a Democratic candidate made preventing the war a central plank in his campaign. Let’s say Bush went out to Wyoming and told voters they had to support the Republican to save the Iraq invasion. And let’s say the Democrat still went on to win that Wyoming Senate seat by more than 5 percentage points.

Would you have advised George Bush under these circumstances to go ahead and invade Iraq? […] Or would you have said, George, I know you really want to invade Iraq. I know you think an invasion will do a lot of good for the world. But the American people are pretty clear about this issue. Maybe you should show a little doubt. Maybe you ought to listen and give this whole thing a second look.

Here’s the problem with that analogy. Imagine that we had this debate over the Iraq invasion, and there were some legitimate differences of opinion. But one side was mostly telling the truth and the other side was mostly confusing the public and telling lies. At the end of the debate, opinion polls reflected that the side telling lies had persuaded a majority of the public, and we went ahead and launched the war.

Oh wait — that actually happened?

The Iraq War was fairly popular at the time it was initiated … about 60 percent of the public supported it, give or take, depending which poll you look at. It was authorized by the Congress overwhelmingly, including by a majority of Senate Democrats — not just Blue Dogs but also John Kerry, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, among others.

And we know how that one turned out.

The Bush Administration, of course, told some big whoppers to get us into Iraq. Maybe there was a humanitarian or realpolitik rationale for invading anyway, but that’s not the story, by and large, that they were pitching to the public. Instead, the sales pitch was based on WMDs and Saddam’s alleged connection to Al Qaeda, both of which have been proven to be false.

Brooks’ analogy to the debate over health care, then, is somewhat ironic: once again, one side has told a lot of lies to help alter the course of public opinion. Some of these lies, like death panels or the government takeover meme, are not very subtle. Others are a little more clever: the notion, for instance, that we could easily require insurers to cover all people with pre-existing conditions without either adopting an individual mandate or substantially escalating premiums.

And those lies have had an impact. Let’s look at, for example, at what opponents of the bill believe, according to the latest Pew poll:

Among those opposed to the health care bill, majorities think that their choice of doctors would be impaired, their out-of-pocket costs would go up, their wait times would increase, and the quality of their care would suffer. Meanwhile, only 27 percent of Americans opposed to the health care bill — and only 39 percent overall — believe that their ability to get coverage would improve if they had a pre-existing condition.

If that’s what people believe, then forget a majority — it’s amazing that health care has even the 40 percent support that it does. But these beliefs range from mostly and probably untrue to completely and demonstrably untrue.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t legitimate reasons to oppose the health care bill. It’s expensive and creates a huge new entitlement. It’s impact on bending the cost curve is marginal, at best. It reduces Medicare spending. It arguably entrenches the system of private insurance. It contains an individual mandate that might be a bad deal for some people. And some people would be impacted more directly, such as those subject to the excise tax or the millionaire’s tax.

Nevertheless, polls have consistently shown that support for the health care program increases dramatically — probably to a plurality and possibly to a majority — when you provide them with a neutral and accurate description of what the legislation actually contains.

One can come to a reasonable argument against the bill, as Brooks ultimately did. But the debates in Congress do not resemble the genteel tête-à-tête that he and Gail Collins have in the New York Times. Not all of this, by the way, is the Republicans’ fault. From Day One, the Democrats have done a poor job of selling the health care bill, in large part because they were so busy fighting with themselves about it.

But how can you do what Dianne Feinstein did, and tell ABC News, in essence — well, the liars won, so we should give up?

I think we do go slower [on] health care. People do not understand it. it is so big it is beyond their comprehension. And if you don’t understand it when somebody tells you it does this or it does that and it’s not true, you tend to believe it, even though it isn’t true. It’s hard to debunk all of the myths that are out there.

How is this morally, tactically, or politically acceptable? How can you expect to keep the majority when you have an attitude like this?

Why not instead say something like:

Well, you know what, what Massachusetts tells us is that we haven’t done a very good job of explaining our values to them. Maybe we need to take a step back and have that conversation with them. And some of our opponents have been made that job more difficult by telling them things that just aren’t true. But we believe that, when people learn what’s really in the health care bill, they’re going to realize how much good it does for our country. And that’s what we were elected to do — to get our country back on track after eight years of a government that misled the American people and produced the worst crises since the Second World War. We understand that people are scared and upset about the tumultuous times that we face and they have every right to be. But we have to continue pressing forward.

Why hasn’t there been a single Democratic Congressman who made a statement like this? Instead, we have people like Feinstein, who voted for the Iraq war and who curls into a defensive crouch every time that the Democrats lose an election.

There’s more than one way for democracy to become dysfunctional. One way is if the Congress consistently adopts policies that the American people don’t support. Another is if one of the major political parties routinely misleads the public to manipulate public opinion, and the other party aids and abets them by behaving like a bunch of gutless wonders who can’t see farther than the next midterm. Neither outcome is desirable — but Iraq ought to be a reminder that the latter is every bit as much a threat to our democracy as the former.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.