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Today in the Power of the BULLY PULPIT

[ 43 ] July 30, 2013 |

During our debates about the bully pulpit, “messaging,” and health care reform, commenters repeatedly asked if messaging isn’t particularly important or effective in determining the popularity of legislation how the “death panels” meme became so powerful. The answer to the question is that it didn’t. Neither positive nor negative messaging significantly altered public opinion. Public opinion on the PPACA has been stable simply because for all intents and purposes the only people who pay attention to messaging already have fully formed positions on the issue.

This doesn’t mean that public opinion on the PPACA will remain stable. But if it changes, it will because the public likes or doesn’t like the benefits it receives, not because of clever messaging.

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  1. Cody says:

    recently asked

    Is September 2011 “recent” now? This is the internet! An hour ago is a “long time ago”.

  2. Murc says:

    But if it changes, it will because the public likes or doesn’t like the benefits it receives, not because of clever messaging.

    Are you sure about that?

    The public really liked having jobs with secure pensions where you couldn’t be arbitrarily fired and abused, but forty years of relentless messaging sure as hell moved the needle on THAT.

    • Who doesn’t like that, at least for themselves?

    • JKTHs says:

      The public People with jobs with secure pensions where you couldn’t be arbitrarily fired and abused really liked having jobs with secure pensions where you couldn’t be arbitrarily fired and abused.

      FTFY

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      The public really liked having jobs with secure pensions where you couldn’t be arbitrarily fired and abused, but forty years of relentless messaging sure as hell moved the needle on THAT.

      [cites omitted]

      Again, the crucial mistake people seem to make is that if Republican legislators do something it must be extremely popular.

      • Murc says:

        Again, the crucial mistake people seem to make is that if Republican legislators do something it must be extremely popular.

        Eh? That seems like quite the non-sequiter to me.

        Your post makes the case, Scott, that the popularity of Obamacare is entirely dependent on how efficacious it is as a matter of public policy.

        I would submit that there are plenty of public policies that are entirely efficacious which nonetheless have ended up in bad odor amongst enormous swathes of people because they’ve been relentlessly demonized.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          And I would still like to see some examples. Generally, policies that benefit large numbers of people are in fact durably popular.

          • Murc says:

            Well, the Republicans manage to get around 45% of the vote, minimum, while explicitly campaigning on destroying things that thirty years ago would have been considered political suicide to advocate.

            I mean, remember the Ryan budget? That was part of Romney’s campaign platform, in fact pretty much the core of it, and it explicitly called for the dismantling of Medicare, a wildly successful and efficacious program. It got, what, 47% of the country voting for it? That says to me that this policy that benefits large numbers of people has gotten sufficiently less popular that trying to destroy it is no longer beyond the pale, and that seems like a win for long-term messaging discipline to me.

            Hell, look at when Bush took a run at Social Security about eight years ago. That wasn’t popular enough to pass, but it sure as hell was more popular than it would’ve been in the eighties, judging by the nonexistent political price paid for it by those who were willing to sign on.

            • slightly_peeved says:

              The alternative theory, which fits better with the opinion polling on the components of the Ryan plan, is many people will vote for a party whether or not they agree with that party’s policies. I think a lot of people voted for Romney assuming he wouldn’t implement the plan if elected. ridiculous, I know…

            • joe from Lowell says:

              judging by the nonexistent political price paid for it by those who were willing to sign on

              The party lost Congress, then lost the Presidential election and went down to 40 Senate seats.

    • JustMe says:

      Members of the public didn’t like other people having jobs with secure pensions where they couldn’t be arbitrarily fired and abused.

    • gmack says:

      I don’t have any numbers on this–so take my comment with a grain of salt–but has there really been a shift in public opinion about the desirability of having a stable job where one cannot be arbitrarily fired and that has a pension? Indeed, if I read the tea leaves correctly, it seems that there is a pretty significant amount of anger and frustration about the loss of these kinds of jobs. So if our policies over the last several decades have tended not to support the maintenance of such an economy, it’s not because public opinion has shifted on the matter; it’s because politicians have found it expedient to pass such laws and there has been no sustained political movement that has changed the political calculus. Why hasn’t there been such a movement? I don’t really know, though I suspect that it has to do with issues of racial resentments, the weakening of unions, and a string of political defeats that tend to convince people that the forces that have created contemporary economic precariousness are inevitable.

    • Cody says:

      I think if you campaigned on achieving these things you would do well.

      In fact, Republicans DO campaign on these things. They just tell their constituents that they will get stable, pension paying jobs when all the Mexicans and Blacks are in jail.

  3. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    But public opinion wasn’t stable. From the linked article:

    Public support for health-care reform declined markedly during the first year or so of Obama’s presidency, at the same time that Republicans were ramping up their attacks on the legislation.

    We can argue about why public support for healthcare reform declined. Perhaps messaging had nothing to do with it. Dan Hopkins’ linguistic analysis is certainly interesting…though to me it suggests not that messaging didn’t work, but that mmessaging about cost, rather than, say “death panels,” did. Perhaps the key was GOP messaging on the stimulus bill?

    But, one way or another, the idea that public support for HCR was unchanged during 2009 is simply false. And if messaging doesn’t explain the change in public opinion on HCR,, something else has to.

    • Even the Heritage Foundation supported healthcare reform in 2008, Scott! How can you say the needle didn’t move?!?!?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        The point is that the linked article argues that messaging doesn’t explain the significant change in support for HCR, not that there was no change in support for HCR, which is what the OP claims.

        • That’s only a distinction if you insist on paying any attention to completely nonsensical noise at the beginning. To wit: there’s always lots of support for things like “health care reform” in the abstract, support that then evaporates as soon as something concrete gets done. The reason it’s nonsense that isn’t worth even considering is that said movement comes in the form of Republicans who never really supported any sort of HCR dropping the pretense altogether, and not any real change in public opinion.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Public opinion on health care has been stable since it became established as a partisan issue. Obviously, presidential position-taking affects public opinion but that’s not the argument.

          • Warren Terra says:

            Yup: the shift from 2008 (when anyone who stood behind a podium claimed to have health care ideas and 2010 (when half the country was convinced government interference with medical care meant The Red Menace) isn’t that peoples’ views on health care policy, or on the health care and health insurance they consumed, had changed in the slightest – it just means that “health care” had become a knee-jerk partisan issue. Hence: a lot of people suddenly claimed to oppose health care reform, because Obama. Not a real or a meaningful shift.

    • JKTHs says:

      I’m not sure how you could measure the decline in the popularity of “health care reform” throughout 2009 considering there wasn’t any bill until June or July IIRC. Were these polls even asking about the same bill (House vs. Senate)? Were they asking broadly about health care reform earlier in the year and then about the specific bill later?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        From Dan Hopkins’ working paper on this (linked from his op-ed linked in the OP):

        To analyze public health care attitudes, we turn to 32 telephone surveys of American adults conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation between February 2009 and January 2012. With at least 1,200 respondents, the Kaiser surveys jointly provide us with information on 30,370 Americans’ attitudes toward health care reform.16 For this analysis, we focus on a single question: “Do you think the country as a whole would be better off or worse off if the president and Congress passed health care reform, or don’t you think it would make much difference?”17 This question was asked consistently throughout the debate, providing us with a common metric of respondents’ health care reform attitudes. The responses are coded on a scale from 1 to 3, with 1 indicating that the country will be worse off, 2 indicating no difference, and 3 indicating that the country will be better off. The over-time decline in positive assessments of health care reform is visible in Figure 6.

  4. elm says:

    Wow, Scott, this is Yglesian-level typos and editing mistakes. If you’re aiming for a higher-profile gig, I don’t think this is the part of Yglesias’s style that should be emulated.

  5. steve says:

    My questions as a non-expert:

    What can change public opinion on concrete policy other than direct experience of the effects of that policy? (as opposed to what happened here, which appears to be folks attaching a specific policy and political alliegence to the word “reform” where before it signified “insert your fantasy about changing health policy here.”)

    Do politicians typically believe they can shape public opinion with all this rhetoric? Or are they just signalling to donors and their diehard voters?

    Under what circumstances do changes or perceived changes in public opinion actually alter congressional voting behavior (i.e. what has to happen to convince legislators that the opinion is held deeply enough to cost them votes X years into the hazy future)?

    • joe from Lowell says:

      My answers as a non-expert.

      What can change public opinion on concrete policy other than direct experience of the effects of that policy?

      Messaging from people that the audience already trusts – clergy, neighbors, local leaders.

      Do politicians typically believe they can shape public opinion with all this rhetoric? Or are they just signalling to donors and their diehard voters?

      It probably varies from politician to politician, but in general, they do seem to believe in their own powers of persuasion.

      Under what circumstances do changes or perceived changes in public opinion actually alter congressional voting behavior

      When public opinion swings elections, and members are replaced by others who vote differently, or feel their own seats threatened.

  6. Dilan Esper says:

    People obsess about messaging for 2 reasons: because it holds out hope that unpopular positions one holds could be popular with a different sales strategy, and because politics is less interesting if things are basically determined by fundamentals.

    And of course linguists and political consultants have a financial interest in the issue.

    Those are biases. The reality is Scott is right.

    • Lee Rudolph says:

      I’m sure Lakoff’s financial interest is far in second place behind his egoistic interest!!!

    • joe from Lowell says:

      I’d offer #3: because they are constantly told that political messaging matters by the media, who have an interest (in both senses of the word) in political messaging.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      People obsess about messaging for 2 reasons: because it holds out hope that unpopular positions one holds could be popular with a different sales strategy, and because politics is less interesting if things are basically determined by fundamentals.

      I think those are both right. Obviously, the strongly ideological are inclined to believe #1 and horse-race “centrist” pundits #2, but both are relevant.

  7. Calming Influence says:

    Polling on the ACA may have remained fairly stable, but one could argue that this was largely because of messaging. The Republicans have a vast industry devoted to nothing but messaging, and their talking points go out early and wide. “Death panels”. “Individual mandate”. “Socialized medicine”. “The federal government making decisions about your health”. But what were the positive message talking points from Democrats? Honestly, none spring to mind.

    The needle might not have moved much, but that may be because it got pegged to the right early on.

    • And now we have the corollary to BULLY PULPIT proponent arguments wherein uses of the BULLY PULPIT are forgotten altogether. And a particularly outlandish example at that!

      • Calming Influence says:

        I expected my comment to be perceived as an argument for more, better and earlier messaging for progressive legislation. If you see it otherwise, that may be why you see it as outlandish? I dunno. Anyway, the ratio of conservative to progressive “think tanks” has got to be at least 10:1, and the funding of them is probably also an order of magnitude different. Conservatives use them continuously to successfully sell horseshit to a large percentage of the country and make them think it’s fudge. Unless progressives get in that game, and they instead think that the BULLY PULPIT will have the same impact as the Republican Noise Machine, we’ll continue to have a messaging problem.

        • Calming Influence says:

          And I should have added that if progressives had a similar noise machine, the president doesn’t need to be out in front all the time, he just uses the BP to hammer the talking points home. The only thing Shrub was out in front on was going to Mars.

          As a related aside, I think it’s very telling that progressives let Air America die, apparently because it was losing money. That’s really why it was on the air? W. T. F.

          • JMP says:

            Though with what Air America eventually became, that wasn’t any great loss. After they lost Franken to the Senate, Maddow to television, and fired all their other actually interesting hosts to replace them with dull droners who seemed to conform to every stereotype of liberals, the death was a mercy killing.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          The paper considers this. The problem is that none of the allegedly brilliant right-wing arguments against the bill significantly penetrated the public at large.

          • Calming Influence says:

            O.K., point taken, and I will go back and re-read. I’ll have to admit that my comment reflects my just having finished The Merchants of Doubt. The amplified messaging of the right has had an enormous negative impact on public debate on many important issues. And truthfully the brilliant right-wing arguments against health care reform started in Clinton’s first term, not 2009. The needle was tilted to the right before Obama opened his mouth.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      But what were the positive message talking points from Democrats?

      The companies can’t take away your insurance.

      No refusing coverage for pre-existing conditions.

      Free birth control!

      • Cody says:

        Yea, Obama got out in front of the messaging on Obamacare very quickly.

        Didn’t he give like a speech in a different town like every other day? There was a big hoopla about Obama “tricking” Americans into liking Obamcare by a campaigning blitz, because he was the first President to ever campaign to the public on a policy.

        Also Republicans know American citizens shouldn’t be included on important policy decisions. They do their best to stop it.

  8. Jesse Levine says:

    Coming attractions in the land of the bully pulpit: Can’t wait for the positive messaging on Grand bargain #1, aka offering cuts in Medicare and Social Security in exchange for something. The President and his men have said three times in the past week that crap is “still on the table”. Wonder how they are going to sell that one.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Hmmm…it’s been two years since Grand Bargain #1 was put on the table, and you’re still waiting for effort from the President to sell it to the public.

      Perhaps there’s some conclusion to draw from that.

  9. [...] argues that conservative messaging has too been effective: Well, the Republicans manage to get around 45% [...]

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