Anatomy of Anger (Cont’d.)

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The President last night did not spell out a tactical way forward for his struggling health reform initiative, but he did make the case for a comprehensive bill. And I was struck by his frank admission that the process of getting there has turned off the American people:

Still, this is a complex issue, and the longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people. And I know that with all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, “What’s in it for me?”

It was almost an echo of something I had heard a few days before the election from a longtime veteran of the Kennedy operation in Massachusetts:

Rather than being drafted with the common good in mind, they said, the health bill was turning into a series of backroom deals — a Medicaid exemption for Senator Ben Nelson’s Nebraska, tax breaks for unions, sweeteners for the hospital and drug industries. As a veteran of the Kennedy political operation put it, “They think there’s a lot coming out of Washington — and none of it is for them.”

Which brings me back, yet again, to the “Cornhusker Kickback.”

Greg Marx of the Columbia Journalism Review has questioned my suggestion that this one provision was all that damaging. I was a little taken aback by his assertion that talking to voters about what they are thinking is outdated. I think this passage in particular patronizes both me and the voters themselves:

The problem, as other commentators have noted over the past few days, is that this sort of shoe-leather reporting may presume an outdated model of voter decision-making.

Much political journalism assumes that voters approach a campaign with a set of concerns they want to see addressed. Over the course of a campaign, they follow the news so they can weigh the candidates’ platforms and their performance on the stump against those concerns. And at the end of the campaign, if you stop a voter on the street, or in a barbershop, and ask why he made the choice he did, he’ll be able to tell you.

But we have reasons to be skeptical that this is actually how voters get information and make decisions. People’s views on political issues are influenced by the messages they absorb from elite opinion-makers, who are increasingly polarized and have an increasingly national reach. And voters’ ability to identify the factors that shaped their choices is limited.

Of course, I did not limit my reporting to man-on-the-street interviews. I never do. I looked at poll results, and talked to strategists. I heard from people who were working phone banks. But I still think there’s a value to occasionally switching off the cable news and talking to people.

And guess what? I’m not the only one who has come around to the belief that Massachusetts voters were turned off by Ben Nelson’s sweetheart deal. Yes, it was a Republican talking point–but it was one that resonated. As one senior White House official said yesterday in advance of the State of the Union address, it was “a galvanizing event. … We need to be mindful of that moving forward.”* Nancy Pelosi said that getting that provision taken out of the bill will be one of the top demands that her members make. “That has to be fixed,” she said.

So call me outdated, but I’m going to continue talking to voters whenever I get the chance. You never know. Sometimes, they might figure out things even before the talking heads do.

*UPDATE: It’s worth pointing out that Obama’s words last night and this comment from a White House official mark a change in tone from the initial reaction to the deal at 1600 Pennsylvania:

Mr. Axelrod said the provisions benefiting specific states, like Nebraska, and favored constituencies were a natural part of the legislative process.

“Every senator uses whatever leverage they have to help their states,” Mr. Axelrod said on the CNN program “State of the Union.” “That’s the way it has been. That’s the way it will always be.”