GOP Failing To Pivot

Often in politics, certain messages are strategically wise at one point (say, during a primary contest) but strategically foolish at another (ie, during the general-election campaign). It can be very difficult for a candidate or a party to pivot from one set of messages to another -- even if they are smart enough to realize that they should.

The national Republicans are at one of those pivot points, in my opinion, on health care reform. Up until now, the party has been in a battle with a clear goal of stopping the bill from becoming law. In that situation, it often makes sense to highlight arguments that generate short-term effects.

For example, the "death panel" argument might successfully sway public opinion against the bill for a while, which in turn can temporarily create difficulty for passage because some Dems don't want to vote for something that's polling poorly. So, Democrats may need to expend time and energy fighting against that message. That buys time for the GOP to find another message, and so on, to forestall passage indefinitely.

But once the bill does pass, the death panel argument is not helpful at all for the GOP -- because people judge actual laws much more by their actual effects, and the GOP would look ridiculous if they were still railing against the new death panels when they aren't actually happening.

In the latter stages of the health care reform bill saga, GOP leaders got almost entirely away from policy-substance messages, and almost entirely wrapped up with process messages. Again, that can be a good tactic -- it seems that Republican criticism of the so-called "Slaughter rule" -- to "deem-and-pass" the Senate bill -- spooked enough Democrats that they abandoned that route.

But by the weekend -- and certainly by Sunday afternoon at the latest -- it was clear that the Democrats were going to pass the bill. In other words, the battle over passage was over, and it was time to pivot to messaging more useful for the next phase of the debate: creating expectations and measures for how voters should judge the law's success in action.

The GOP has done this fairly effectively with the stimulus package: through effective messaging, they have largely convinced the public that the stimulus was supposed to keep unemployment below 8%, and was supposed to result in a substantial net growth in jobs, and since neither has happened the legislation has been a failure.

On health care, Democrats have pivoted fast enough to make your head spin. They have been using any and every opportunity to talk about sick children getting treatment, and small business owners not being forced out of business, and other pieces of the legislation that they want people to notice, because they expect will be popular. (And which, not coincidentally, will go into effect immediately.)

The GOP is having a much harder time pivoting. Some of them have tried, by using their public statements to reinforce messages about potentially unpopular aspects of the new law: potential costs, for instance, or shortage of practitioners to meet increased demand for services.

But for the most part those messages have been drowned out by messages that strike me as really, really unhelpful in a post-passage environment.

Mitt Romney put out a statement condemning passage of the legislation as "an unconscionable abuse of power," adding that "President Obama has betrayed his oath to the nation." John Boehner bemoaned "the wreckage of what was once the respect and honor that this House was held in by our fellow citizens." Others are pointing with outrage at arcane and largely meaningless (to all but the most zealous) distinctions in abortion funding mechanisms.

And those are the relative voices of moderation -- other prominent Republicans are saying much wilder things about the death of freedom and democracy, and of course the voices outside of public office are even more committed to the arguments of least practical relevance.

It will be very hard for the party to gain control of the messaging, even if they try; the GOP is leaderless, and even its most prominent names are clearly jerked around at the whims of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

In just these first hours after House passage, we have the reported determination of more than a half-dozen Republican state attorneys-general to challenge the constitutionality of the law -- focussing, it appears, entirely on the individual mandate. Those AGs are being led by at least three with upcoming GOP primaries where they are running for governor (McMaster in SC; McCollum in FL; and Corbett in PA), and the lawsuit might help them in that arena. But it almost ensures that the GOP will spend the rest of this election cycle (and beyond) looking like they are using a procedural technicality to try to take away the extra coverage filling in your "donut hole," or to kick the 24-year-old daughter off your insurance. (I realize that there are serious concerns about the mandate, and that many libertarians don't see the objection as a procedural technicality -- but that is definitely how it will look to most people.)

That effort, and vows to campaign on "repealing the bill" -- coming already from GOP candidates everywhere, including Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire -- require a rationale that stretches beyond the party's base, and I don't see that case being formed at all.

All they're accomplishing is hyping the base up about health care, which seems totally unnecessary at this point; the base is plenty worked-up already, and we're only just getting to the national debates on things they really hate: energy/environment legislation, and immigration reform.

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