The conventional wisdom is that Republican Scott Brown's upset victory in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's vacant Senate seat was a referendum on health care reform. In a sense it's true. A majority of voters saw health care as the most important issue in the election, with most of Martha Coakley's supporters in favor of the health care bill in Congress and most Brown supporters opposed and preferring to pass nothing at all.
Congressional Democrats from more conservative districts immediately began to back away from the bill in order to avoid the Coakley's fate. But, as Nate Silver argues, there are reasons to think they are drawing the wrong conclusion. Massachusetts, of course, already has universal health care. And according to a Washington Post/Harvard poll (pdf) voters in the special election supported the Massachusetts health care system by a 68-27 margin. As John Sides points out, a majority of Brown voters even supports the Massachusetts system. And in fact while most voters said they thought Massachusetts would be worse off if the current health care bill passed Congress, most actually thought that the country as a whole would be better off. Far from being opposed to health care reform in principle, Massachusetts voters seem to have worried that the bill in front of Congress wouldn't have been as progressive as the system they already have in place. That shouldn't be terribly surprising, since some of the things that were cut from the national bill—like the public option—were among its most popular provisions.
It may not be the specific provisions of the national health care bill that Massachusetts voters were objecting to anyway. As Silver points out, many voters said they had problems with the way the bill was drafted. It's safe to say that the ugly, partisan bickering over the bill was part of what turned them off. It's not clear, in any case, that voters in Massachusetts—or anywhere else—really understand what's in the Congressional bill. As Silver writes in another post, most of the individual provisions of the bill are quite popular—but that many people don't realize they are actually in the bill. So when people say they oppose the bill, it's not clear what they think is actually in it. But an NBC poll (pdf) back in August found that people went from opposing the bill to supporting it by a margin of ten points when they were actually told what the bill entails.
The fact is that no bill of this magnitude is going to look good while a bitter, partisan battle is being fought over it. The health care reform bill has been attacked relentlessly from the right, to the point where it was widely said to contain a provision for "death panels" with the power to euthanize the elderly. Of course, the Democrats knew that attempting to pass sweeping reform would be difficult. But they should have the courage of their convictions and pass it anyway, just as they did with social security and medicare. After all, several years after the passage of health care reform in Massachusetts, it is hugely popular.