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