Overstating the importance of a midterm election is understandably tempting for politicians and pundits, especially when the partisan turnover reaches historic proportions, as it indisputably did on Nov. 2. It is a temptation to which Republicans and conservatives seem particularly vulnerable.

When their party won the first George W. Bush midterm in 2002, Karl Rove crowed that his political team had made history, which was true enough — and then went on to claim a partisan realignment that would put Republicans in charge for decades if not centuries. They lost control of Congress and the White House within the following six years, not least because of false assumptions about the meaning of their victories.

If the leaders of the new Republican majority believe that 2010 represents a sweeping ideological shift — rather than an expression of fury and fear over the nation’s stagnant economy — they risk overreaching again. That risk increases for them under enormous pressure to pander to the extreme elements of the tea party movement.

Consider the Republican promise to repeal health care reform, a position that might appear highly popular to anyone who hasn’t read much polling data on the issue. Election Day exit polls showed that the health care bill is not nearly so widely despised as right-wing propaganda suggests — and that its demise is certainly not the highest priority of voters.

Asked whether they want the health care reform bill repealed in the next Congress, 48 percent said yes and 47 percent said no — a statistical tie that belies any claims of overwhelming opposition. Asked whether health care was the most important issue in the midterm election, only 19 percent agreed, compared with 62 percent who cited the economy.

Keep in mind that the midterm electorate was heavily weighted toward the conservative, older white voters most hostile to President Obama and “Obamacare,” as it is known on Fox News. Those same exit polls showed a drop in younger voters from 18 percent in 2008 to only 11 percent this year, and a rise in elderly voters from 16 percent in 2008 to 23 percent this year — a stunning shift. That helped conservatives to increase their share from 34 percent to 41 percent.

Of even greater importance is the fact that so many Americans — including many independent voters who say they want repeal — currently have little or no idea what the health care reform bill actually provides. Thanks to Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Fox News, millions still think the bill will force doctors to pull the plug on Grandma. In a recent survey, up to 40 percent of respondents said they believe the bill creates the mythical “death panels” conjured by Palin and Gingrich in a “government takeover” of the system.

None of that is true, of course — and many of the bill’s little-known but real provisions will attract support as people learn about them in a debate over repeal. Most people like the idea of regulating insurance companies to make sure they spend money on care rather than profits and promotion; most people like the idea of protecting consumers from exclusion for pre-existing conditions; and most people appreciate the idea of letting parents insure their children until age 26.

But come January, the Republicans will be obliged to file repeal legislation—and to argue that the public will fare better under the tender care of the insurance oligopoly than with any government protections at all. Otherwise, the tea party will wreak havoc in the 2012 primaries, or so they warn.

There was no overwhelming mandate in this election on health care. Certainly there was no mandate to turn the country over to the insurance companies or any other corporate elite. The Republicans assume otherwise at their own peril.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2010 Creators.com

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