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Why Romney is Avoiding Specifics on His Policy Ideas: No One Likes Them

Conservatives panicking over Mitt Romney’s poll numbers want him to talk about policy in more detail, particularly when it comes to health care. Nothing would please me more. But conservatives wishing for a more honest, substantive debate might want to look at a new survey out today. The results suggest that Republican positions on Medicare and perhaps even Obamacare are less popular than I realized.

The survey is the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. Its most striking result is the primary question about Medicare reform. It asks respondents whether Medicare “should continue as it is today, with the government providing health insurance and paying doctors and hospitals directly” or whether it “should be changed to a system where the government provides seniors with a fixed sum of money they could use either to purchase private health insurance or to pay the cost of remaining in the current Medicare program.” The wording seems relatively straightforward and without terms designed to sway opinion one way or another. It says nothing about “vouchers,” for example, and it doesn’t raise the possibility that seniors might have to pay more if the system changes. But 67 percent of respondents said they preferred keeping Medicare as is, while only 26 percent said they favored the Republican reforms.

That result is consistent with other polling on the issue, as far as I know. It also makes intuitive sense, at least if you’ve ever spoken to anybody on Medicare. Policy experts, including some to the left of center, love to talk about the virtues of competition and supposed efficiency of the private insurance market. Sometimes they even make valid arguments: From a policy perspective, Medicare really does have some problems. But most seniors like Medicare just the way it is. It’s easy to use and covers pretty much every medical service they might need. Most important of all, they never have to worry it will disappear. Non-seniors can appreciate these things, too. Most of us also know what it’s like to choose from among private insurance plans and to deal with insurance company bureaucracies. That's not a lot of fun. And many of us understand what it's like to lose insurance or, at least, worry about losing it. That's not a lot of fun, either.

The poll did not ask respondents whether their opinion would change if, as the Republicans promise, the program wouldn’t change for ten years and, even then, only for new enrollees. (That’s not entirely true, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.) But the more telling result for me was a follow-up question, about the infamous $716 billion in Medicare cuts that President Obama signed as part of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have attacked this decision as “raiding” or “robbing” Medicare to pay for “other people.” The pollsters put that question to respondents, albeit in less loaded terms: Obamacare “puts much of that money into expanding the Medicaid program for the poor and working class as well as preventative health care. Do you think that was a good use of the Medicare savings?” Much to my surprise, 56 percent said yes and only 33 percent said no.

The other questions on Obamacare were similarly revealing. Many of us have hoped that the Affordable Care Act would prove more popular with time. So far, that hasn't happened. (In other words, folks like me were wrong.) But the National Journal poll suggests the public may be feeling more kindly towards the law, if only slightly. Will Obamacare help “the middle class”? In the survey, 45 percent said yes and just 40 said no. Will it help “people like you and your family”? Forty-three percent said yes and 39 said no. Will it help “the country overall”? Fifty percent said yes and 39 said no. That’s not exactly a groundswell, but popular support does seem to be higher than it was in the summer, when National Journal asked some of these questions previously and Gallup did its own, very similar survey. And Rasmussen may also have picked up a small shift, according to Jeffrey Anderson of the Weekly Standard.

Stronger support for Obamacare could reflect any number of factors. Maybe people are hearing about or taking advantage of the law’s early benefits, like coverage of young adults, wider availability of free preventative care, and prescription drug assistance for seniors. Maybe they are associating opposition to the law with Romney, whom they see as a plutocrat that doesn't care about the middle class. Maybe they watched Bill Clinton’s speech, in which he defended the law without ambiguity or hesitation. Or maybe they haven't changed their minds at all—this is statistical noise and the next poll will show enthusiasm for Obamacare back down to where it was before. I really have no idea.

Either way, the broader point stands. The more Romney talks about his plans, the more he'll have to acknowledge the unpopular trade-offs—and not just on health care. If Romney provides details on his tax plan, he'll have to tell non-wealthy voters he's raising their taxes or admit that his plan will, on its own, increase the deficit. If he provides more details on his spending plan, he'll have to tell the voters about massive cuts to federal programs they cherish. If he goes into detail about his economic agenda, he'll have to admit that serious economists doubt that agenda will do much to create jobs in the short run.

Specifics may not help Romney politically. If anything, they may hurt.

By the way, for more on conservatives urging Romney to be specific, see Sahil Kapur at Talking Points Memo and Paul Waldman at the American Prospect. And for a slightly less sanguine take on the same poll, see Greg Sargent.

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