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GOP health-care strategy: Stall
The lengthy speech on health care that Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele delivered on Monday was short on details. Republicans, said Steele, wanted to address “runaway costs,” and had a few ideas on how to do that, such as posting the cost of treatments “openly on the Internet,” supporting “bold new incentives” for medical breakthroughs, and “no life-time health care benefits and insurance for Congressmen who leave their jobs.”
Most of Steele’s event at the National Press club consisted of scorching attacks on President Obama’s agenda for health care reform, and on the early drafts of health care legislation that have been scored by the Congressional Budget Office at around $1 trillion.
Much of the speech had been telegraphed two weeks earlier in a poll conducted for the RNC and a corresponding memo from Alex Castellanos, a Republican media consultant who worked for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, which argued that Republicans could kill Democratic plans for health care reform by dragging out the debate. “If we slow this sausage-making process down,” Castellanos wrote, “we can defeat it.” The “key message” for Republicans would be “We’ve got to ‘SLOW DOWN the OBAMA EXPERIMENT WITH OUR HEALTH’.”
In his Monday speech, Steele used the word “experiment” or some version of it no fewer than 30 times. In a new television ad airing in North Dakota, Nevada, and Arkansas — all states with at least one Democratic senator on the ballot in 2010–the RNC casts health care reform, again, as a “risky experiment.”
Steele’s performance was less a kick-off, more an amplification of a year-long conservative campaign that is entering its final months without much remaining subtlety. Republicans are in the precarious position of arguing for a “pause button,” as Steele put it, in the ongoing negotiations over health care, while Democrats are aware that any pause or slow-down would effectively kill reform in the 111th Congress.
There are Republican alternatives that have no chance of passage; the Patients’ Choice Act sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for example, has six co-sponsors. Republicans are testing brand-new health care messaging against Democrats in swing states, while those same Democrats are aware that a failure to pass health care reform would drain their political capital and worsen their chances of re-election in 2010.
“If it doesn’t happen this year it’s not going to happen,” said one House GOP aide. “If too many members have concerns about this in an off-year, even their ranks are only going to grow in an election year.”
It’s been difficult for Republicans to avoid the occasional blunt remark that reveals that fact. High-minded “working groups” on health care reform have given way to an alliance with Rick Scott, the former private hospital CEO who launched Conservatives for Patients’ Rights in March. Scott’s checkered experience in health care — he resigned from Columbia/HCA in 1997 after a $1.7 billion fraud settlement — did not immediately win him many public alliances with the GOP. But by the time Scott appeared at the launch of Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) launch of his own health care plan in June, some Republicans were echoing the message in his TV ads, that Congress needed to slow down the pace of health care reform.
After that event, in a brief conversation with The Washington Independent, Scott remarked that “the debate really changed” since he’d launched his group, and that a slow-down of reform would be the end of Democratic plans for health care. “If they don’t get it done by October,” said Scott, “it’s not going to get done.”
The directness of Scott’s campaign backfired a little last week when he co-hosted a conference call with DeMint. On the call, DeMint argued that a Republican victory on health care would “break” Obama and steer political momentum away from Democrats. In a Monday night interview with the News Hour on PBS, the president credited DeMint with saying what Republicans were really thinking. “There is a certain portion of the Republican Party that views this like they saw ’93, ’94, the last time there was a major health-reform effort,” said the president. “They explicitly went after the Clintons, said we’re not going to get this done … it was a pure political play, a show of strength by the Republicans that helped them regain the House.”
All of this puts Republicans in the acrobatic position of throwing up roadblocks to kill health care reform this year while, in the states, attempting to convince vulnerable Democrats that successful health care reform would be a political boondoggle that could end their control of Congress. In conversations with The Washington Independent, Republican strategists in the states targeted by the RNC’s new ads had some difficulty squaring the circle. “We all saw what happened the last time there was a major push by a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress to mandate government-run health care,” said Robert Uithoven, a Republican strategist in Nevada. While Uithoven acknowledged that the Democrats of 1994 stumbled by failing to pass any health care reform, he argued that success this year could be a problem, too. “Harry Reid succeeding on this would be disastrous for the country. The more people learn about the cost, the more dangerous it is for Reid to succeed in this effort.”
Bill Vickery, an Arkansas Republican strategist who plans to work for his party’s nominee against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), claimed that it would be “politically disastrous” for the senator to support a health care bill with a public plan. “If she votes for it and it passes you say, once again, she sided with the ultra-liberal president, she’s a toady for the administration. If she votes against it, maybe it’s a non-starter politically. And if she votes for it and the bill fails anyway, you make a more nuanced version of that first argument.”
Those arguments run up against the plans of other vulnerable Democrats, who are already running on health care reform. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who has taken the lead on health care legislation in the absence of the ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), is on the air with ads that feature Kennedy praising Dodd for his work on “the cause of my life.” Former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), who is running against Dodd, has an opening if reform falters.
“Dodd believes that whatever legislation he rams through Congress will accrue to his benefit,” said Jim Barnett, Simmons’ campaign manager. “The problem is that voters are judging him on honesty, and nobody trusts him, so he’s staking a lot on the idea he that he’s getting things done in the Senate. If the effort fails or if it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, it will be painful for him.”
David Weigel covers Republicans and the conservative movement for the Washington Independent, a Center for Independent Media site.